Many children have a healthy fascination with dinosaur fossils, but Pete Nesbitt never grew out of it.
Now a retired business executive, Nesbitt spends his days with dental gear in hand, gently brushing away millions of years of dirt from dinosaur fossils extracted from around the world.
"You almost move a grain of sand at a time," Nesbitt said. "It takes a whole day just to clear about 1 square inch."
The shelves of his home near the Chattahoochee Golf Course are lined with spiraling snail-like ammonites, dinosaur teeth, eggs and bones he has exposed from their rock encasements.
He said his wife, Martha Nesbitt, president of Gainesville State College, tolerates his fossil addiction well. But she stopped him cold when he proposed mounting a 6-foot triceratops head above the living room mantle.
Nesbitt's interest in paleontology has led him to a second career in fossil replica production. He is vice president of Paleo Collectibles, a dinosaur, plant and fish fossil reproduction company in Gainesville that ships replicas of rare and ancient fossils to private collectors nationwide.
The company is also in the beginning stages of a possible partnership with a natural history museum in Salt Lake City and is already lending its work to local McDonald's restaurants.
One of Paleo Collectibles' replicas is currently on display in the McDonald's on Thompson Bridge Road. And next month, the McDonald's on Frontage Road in Oakwood will sport a new dinosaur-themed decor.
Replicas of ancient creatures will cover the walls of the restaurant, including a replica of a 70-million-year-old mosasaurus fossil, which looks like an alligator with fins.
"It's a wonderful education for kids, because some kids don't have access to museums like this," Nesbitt said. "When they see one of our mososauruses in a McDonald's, they couldn't improve on it by going to a museum."
Joe Wyant, president of Paleo Collectibles and Nesbitt's partner in the company, said the replicas are identical to the real fossils discovered by Steve Nicklas, an archaeology and anthropology professor at Gainesville State College.
"There's a lot of beasts in the ground, and it takes a long time to dig them out," Wyant said.
Nicklas, who graduated from the University of London's Institute of Archaeology with a doctorate in field archaeology, spends his summers traveling through Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana collecting primarily dinosaur fossils. He also travels to South America, Russia and Ukraine to find fossils to deliver to Nesbitt in Gainesville.
With the help of Kate Perry, a Gainesville State College paleontology student, Nesbitt chisels the solidified dirt from the fossils Nicklas finds and casts them to create exact copies. At Nicklas' home in Dawsonville, Perry paints the replicas to recreate the color scheme of the real fossils.
"If you went to any natural history museum, they would have replicas just like ours, but maybe not as detailed as ours," Wyant said.
Nesbitt said museum exhibits typically showcase fossil replicas rather than the real bones, because the real fossils are just too rare, delicate and expensive.
To date, the Paleo Collectibles crew has discovered three Tyrannosaurus rex fossils in the western United States, and they are in the early stages of prospecting a juvenile T. rex dubbed "Tinker" as well.
Nicklas, Nesbitt and Perry have produced a 4-foot-long T. rex femur replica along with numerous small flying dinosaurs, fish and dinosaur heads, replicating fossils that date back more than 65 million years ago.
In addition to private collectors, museums and McDonald's, Wyant said Paleo Collectibles also markets its fossil replicas to doctor, dentist and attorney offices.
"A marvelous fossil on display is certainly a conversation piece, and kids really love them," Nesbitt said.
Paleo Collectibles' replicas come with a presentation stand and a plaque detailing the replicated fossil's species, age and origin. The most expensive replica is the mososaurus, which costs about $700.
Interested in digging for your own fossil? You're in luck. Nicklas takes individuals and families on weeklong fossil hunts out West each summer through his tour company, Paleo Prospectives.
Nicklas' tours have had more than 800 participants, who made more than 100 museum-quality discoveries.