Thousands of Ice Age fossils -- some 2 million years old -- were discovered 40 years ago in Ruskin

To honor the County's rich history, Hillsborough is highlighting its historical markers in a series of stories. Stay tuned for more history of significant people, places, and events across this fascinating county.

Miracle at Cockroach Bay - The Leisey Shell Fossils

It was summer in 1983 when Frank Garcia, an asbestos worker and self-taught paleontologist, made one of the most significant fossil discoveries in North America. Garcia lived in Ruskin and often scoured the surrounding area for bones, shells, and other remnants of past plants and animals. A favorite hunting spot was property owned by the Leisey Shell Corporation. At the time, the company was mining crushed seashells for building roads.

It was in the Leisey Shell Pit that Garcia found the remains of Ice Age creatures and plants, some from two million years ago. Mammoth jaws, saber cat teeth, and the remains of a condor with a 15-foot wingspan were just a few of his findings. With the help of volunteers and support from local and state organizations, the remains of over 140 species were unearthed. A total of 20 of these were new to science, including several types of birds, rodents, and an armadillo-like mammal. A collection of items found at the Leisey Shell Pit can be viewed at the Paleo Preserve Fossil Museum  in Ruskin.

Historical marker Cockroach Bay
Miracle at Cockroach Bay The Leisey Shell Fossils historical marker sign with what was once the Leisey Shell Pit in the background (now a pond).

Historical Marker Inscription

"In the ponds in front of you one of the richest Ice-Age fossil discoveries in the world took place in 1983-84. When amateur paleontologists reported a large accumulation of fossils to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Leisey Shell Pit and the community of Ruskin, Florida became international celebrities.

The fossil site attracted the attention of local, state, and national news media. Scientists called the discovery a new window into the past for paleontology. Fossil hunter Frank Garcia and crew organized volunteers in and around the community of Ruskin to excavate 203 different types of fauna. With cooperation and resources from the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Leisey Shell Corporation and the Leisey and Casey families, over 20,000 identifiable fossils were unearthed. Volunteers from the Tampa Bay Mineral & Science Club recognized public interest in the Leisey fossils and spawned the Tampa Bay Fossil Club which continues to meet some 30 years later."

Saber-toothed cat skull
A saber-toothed cat skull found in the Leisey Shell Pit. This fossil is approx. 10,000 to 1.5 million years old.

Marker location

The marker is in Ruskin, Florida. It is on Mammoth Trail, 0.2 miles south of Gulf City Road, on the right side when traveling south.

This marker was erected in 2017 by the Hillsborough County Historical Advisory Council and the Tampa Bay Fossil Club.

Learn about fossils from the Leisey Shell Pit

If you would like to learn more about the fossils found in the Leisey Shell Pit, the Paleo Preserve Fossil Museum, part of the Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center, is a great place to start. The Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center is operated in partnership with Hillsborough County Conservation & Environmental Lands Management . More information is available on Camp Bayou's website. If you have questions, please call (813) 641-8545 or email Camp Bayou at

Last Modified: 1/26/2024, 6:26:58 PM

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