The children and I visited the Florida Museum of Natural History recently, located on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. The museum is run by the state and is therefore mainly free to visit, except for the special exhibits. The main part of the museum is free and houses all the animal fossil exhibits from Florida’s past, a children's science room, and exhibits of the Calusas (an early Native American tribe in Florida). They also have a permanent butterfly garden and a temporary bat exhibit for which tickets must be bought. The butterfly exhibit costs $11 for adult Florida residents and the bat exhibt costs another $5. Children can see both exhibits for $10. You can visit the museum's web page at

Main Museum

The fossils housed in this museum are second to none in the state of Florida. They comprise the remains of animals from Florida’s past specifically.

children standing in front of mammoth giant ground sloth
Exhibit of enlarged Ice Age sea animals

Florida has a unique past compared to the rest of the mainland United States, due to the fact that the land of the peninsula used to be underwater during the time of the dinosaurs. For that reason, you will not find any dinosaur fossils in Florida, where you will find plenty in the rest of the United States. Instead, what you will find in Florida are fossils left by the sea creatures that were living during dinosaur times. During the last ice age, when the sea level lowered, Florida rose up out of the ocean and land animals were then able to move in. Thus, there are many ice age animal fossils to be found in Florida. Humans wandered across the ice bridge from Asia into North America at that time. Eventually some of these humans made it all the way down into Florida and quickly made breakfast, lunch, and dinner out of the giant ice age mammals. Thus, thanks to hungry humans, mass extinctions of the large mammals in North America occurred on an epic scale, matched only by the earlier meteorite that wiped out the large dinosaurs.

So because of that history, in the museum there are many amazing fossil skeletons of extinct ice age mammals. There is the three-toed horse ancestor, a giant ground sloth, a variety of saber-toothed cat species, a bear dog, a mammoth, and many others. Then there are the marine fossils from the dinosaur ages. The most amazing exhibit shows the jaws of the various shark ancestors, culminating in the megalodon. The jaws of a modern great white shark are there so you can see how puny they are compared to these long extinct monsters.

model of a Calusa village

They also have an extensive exhibit of the Calusas. Surprisingly, the Calusa are not part of our curriculum in second grade even though we cover Native Americans in that grade. These Native Americans were the ones that the first Spanish explorers met when they arrived in Florida in the early 1500s. The museum has many artifacts displayed in large diorama type displays with statues of the people. There is an entire small room that looks like the inside of one of their buildings with a meeting of tribal elders taking place. The Spanish explorers tried to convert the Calusa’s to Christianity through various deplorable methods and failed. The Calusa managed to continually resist Spain’s efforts to conquer South Florida for 200 years. It wasn’t until the later English, in the 1700s, started supplying nearby tribes with guns to capture the Calusas and sell them as slaves, that they began to lose power. Eventually between the English weapons and renewed Spanish attempts, combined with the spread of European diseases, the Calusas were largely wiped out, with some being shipped to Cuba as slaves in 1763 when Spain sold Florida to England. In fourth grade, Floria history is covered and yet the Calusa are still only anonymously mentioned as part of a generic group of Native Americans afffected by the Spanish explorers. The tribe that is extensively covered in public school curriculum in Florida is the Seminole tribe. The Seminoles gathered together later than the Calusa. We do teach about them specifically in second grade and fourth grade. They are also featured in some exhibits at the museum. There are displays of artifacts from their culture, including tools and clothing.

butterflies in the garden

The Butterfly Garden

For a fee, visitors are able to go into the butterfly garden where there are scores of butterflies flitting around in a screened-in outdoors exhibit. The exhibit has many trees and flowers for the butterflies as well as a stream and pond with fish. A path winds through the exhibit to allow the visitors to explore the habitat. The museum is constantly hatching new butterflies for the exhibit and they have a butterfly release every day at 2 pm weather permitting. Unfortunately, when we went it started storming right at a few minutes before 2. We were able to see scores of butterflies in the garden earlier in the day, however. Outside the exhibit the museum has a very large wall covered with displays of butterflies representing perhaps a few hundred butterfly species.

butterflies eating


The Bat Exhibit

For a few months the museum has an exhibit on bats that I found interesting, although the children found it the least interesting thing in the museum. The exhibit had specimens of stuffed bats and bat skeletons. It had large statues of different heads of different bat species with digital displays next to them that gave information about each species. It had a lot of information about how echolocation works, including large fake bat ears that you could hold over your own ears to hear better. One exhibit had recordings of the only two bat species whose cries are low enough in pitch for humans to hear.

Parent and Teacher Recommendation:

This is a wonderful resource for families and schools to visit in Florida. The fossil exhibit is stunning with its large collection of Ice Age mammals. The artifacts of the Calusa and Seminoles are very interesting as well. And best of all it’s free. Looking through the main museum probably took about an hour and a half, reading the signs and studying the displays. The butterfly exhibit is wonderful and worth the $11 ticket which goes to help fund the museum. For an extra $5 you can see the bat exhibit currently. The bat exhibit takes about 20 minutes to look through and the butterfly exhibit takes about half an hour. The museum is a great destination for a field trip for Florida schools. There is nothing like seeing those fossils in person to get a solid idea of what animal life used to be like during the Ice Ages.