Pat’s Wildways: Natural History Museum and more in Gainesville

By Pat Foster-Turley,  Ph.D.
July 22, 2021

The fossil hall showcases articulated skeletons of fossilized mammals found at a dig near Gainesville (Photo by Karen Brown)

If you are looking for a cool way to spend a summer day, head to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. It’s about a two hour drive in your air conditioned car and cool in many ways once you get there–more than just the cool indoor climate. There are many interesting things on display here, with permanent exhibits and others that change occasionally. And general admission is free!

When I visited this museum a couple of weeks ago, it was the first time for me in a few years. This time the changing exhibit, “Survival of the Slow” featured live animals, most notable of them being the sloth. As a senior, I paid an extra $9 to see this display, but the other people visiting at the time were the only moving beings. The sloth was in an exhibit totally sacked out, slower than slow, and I was unlucky that the keeper was not showing him off when I was there, although this happens often I’ve been told.

A better value for an extra charge (senior price $12) is the amazing Butterfly Rainforest, a humid dome filled with blooming tropical plants, tall trees and lots and lots of multi-colored butterflies from all over the world. A walk through this large display is an immersion experience in the humid tropics where most of these butterflies originated. The butterflies, birds, turtles and fish in this exhibit are all around you, in the air, above in the trees, and in the streams meandering through it.

The Butterfly Rainforest exhibit provides an immersive encounter with tropical butterflies, plants, birds and of course, high humidity.

When you are done with the humidity there are air conditioned butterfly exhibits too and these are free. You can watch curators of the Lepidoptera (butterflies) sorting and preserving specimens on the other side of glass windows (which I’m sure the researchers must hate) and you can watch butterflies emerging from their chrysalises through another window nearby.

All the other exhibits are free too. You can walk through an artificial cave and look at dioramas with great artwork and taxidermied animals to track the course of fresh water in North Florida. You can see artifacts and exhibits depicting native Floridians and their relationship with wildlife including a simulated Calusa home and a much larger than life walk through an estuary as a small fish would see it, with giant predatory crabs and fish looming around you. Another popular exhibit showcases the museum’s large fossil collection with huge articulated skeletons of a mammoth, saber-toothed tiger, giant sloths and other creatures that once roamed Florida all displayed in life-like postures. And there’s much more to see too.

The large entry hall at the Florida Museum of Natural History features an interactive video that children of all ages can have fun with.


After my roam through the museum I settled into a seat in the entry hall and watched the people, even more interesting than you might imagine. A large video screen projected live action camera footage of those of us in the hall. And, overlaid on this, a mammoth, a saber-toothed tiger and a crocodile all entered the scene. The kids in the rotunda caught on quickly as they jumped around and gestured and pretended to pet the tiger on the screen and to run from the elephant as the rest of us watched from our seats. Well, not exactly. Even I tried to “pet” the tiger as it appeared in front of my image on the screen. It was great fun.

When you are done with the Florida Museum of Natural History, walk next door to the Harn Museum of Art, one of the largest university art collections in the South. Here you can see hundreds of objects, some permanent, some visiting exhibits, showcasing Asian, African, modern and contemporary artwork of all types. Unbelievably this museum is also free to all visitors. And there is another new museum on the scene in Gainesville too, the Cade Museum of Creativity and Invention, one I have yet to see for myself.


And by all means don’t leave Gainesville before eating at one of the many restaurants scattered around town. Although we have many food choices on Amelia Island, we are sorely lacking in varieties of ethnic food. But not so, Gainesville. Whenever I visit I convince my Gainesville friends to dine with me at an Indian, Jamaican, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean or another ethnic restaurant to ease my cravings for the exotic.

I hope this has inspired you to visit our Gainesville neighbor. It’s easy enough to fill more than one day sightseeing here, even in the heat of summer. And if you plan to spend the night there are myriad lodging options in all price ranges to choose from. No matter what, you won’t regret a trip to Gainesville!

Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations at [email protected]