For many budding paleontologists, both young and old, the idea of finding your first fossil goes something like this: a bright day, full of opportunity. You look down and, amazingly, something just happens to catch your eye. In the flash of a moment, you’ve discovered the newest species of dinosaur!
Amateur fossil hunter, and rancher Kathy Wankel, made an incredible discovery while on a Labor Day camping trip with her family. While collecting rocks, she stumbled upon the fossil remains of a Tyrannosaurus.
Although we can’t all be as lucky as Wankel on our first fossil hunt, finding fossils is not uncommon. While you may not discover a brand new type of dinosaur, most places in the world have outstanding local fossil hotspots. If you’re willing to start small, there are genuine fossil-hunting opportunities all around the world.
Many first-time fossil hunters neglect safety, equipment, and geography. Avoiding these mistakes will help you start a fossil collection. Let’s get started!
Fossil Hunting Guide Books
Before setting out on your fossil search, you must know what types of fossils you want to collect. All living things can leave behind fossils. These can range in size from small shark teeth to gigantic dinosaur bones. You may even find fossilized eggshells, skin impressions, and possibly dung.
The specific types of fossils you’re most likely to find are determined primarily by where you’re looking. After all, learning your local geography can help you tailor your search.
You should see if your friends have an interest in fossil collecting, you may be surprised. I got to see my first fossil at Fossil Rim in Texas after I noticed a friend wearing a t-shirt. You never know which of your contacts could provide useful information and even join you on your fossil hunts.
Next, use search engines to start researching your area. Local museums often have experts who can provide resources to get you going. There are several great books on the topic as well.
My favorite book on fossils is Fantastic Fossils: A Guide to Finding and Identifying Prehistoric Life by Donald Prothero. It makes an excellent fossil-hunting guide for newcomers to this hobby.
While most fossil hunting books provide a simple list of different fossils, this book goes in-depth on what it’s like to hunt fossils. It was easy to read, even for a novice, and got me excited about paleontology.
Where is the Best Place to Hunt Fossils?
Fossils can be found around the world where certain rocks become exposed. Mental Floss provided an excellent resource that lists 10 public fossil hunting sites in the United States.
You can find even more great locations listed on the CNN Travel site. You may wonder, what makes these locations better than others?
The shift in tectonic plates that occurred over billions of years determines what life forms can be found at specific locations. Your home may sit on what was once the ocean floor.
A search for local geography over time can reveal details about what types of prehistoric life are local to your site. Watch the short video below to learn which fossils are in your area.
After billions of years of life on earth, fossils represent only a sliver of all life forms that have existed. Why do only some living things become fossils? To fossilize, organic material must be buried quickly to preserve. Decomposition, scavengers, and erosion destroy soft tissues.
The type of sediment plays a factor in quickly covering organic material. Prime rocks for fossils include shale or sedimentary rock. Through a process called lithification, soft materials are turned into rock. To learn more about this topic, check out our article on why fossils are found in sedimentary rock.
How to Narrow Your Fossil Search
If you are searching specifically for dinosaur bones, there are plenty of sites in the American West that offer a chance to find some of the most famous dinosaurs. You could use this United States geological map by looking for zones of sedimentary rock or coastal unconsolidated rock.
The geological map can suggest the age of the rock in your area. Dinosaur tracks and bones can be found from the Mesozoic era, which consists of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods.
Once you know where you’re going, you can refine your research to help you identify the types of fossils you’re most likely to find by evaluating the types of rock or terrain. Everyone wants to find dinosaurs but given that most living things are aquatic, these fossils are easier to collect.
If you live near a coast or search the grounds of an ancient river or ocean bed, you will want to look for oddly shaped rocks along the shore. Some people have even found fossils of ancient ocean life directly in a waterway.
Keep an eye out for shark teeth, which might be lodged into sedimentary rock. Looking in streams is a good strategy if you’re looking in a heavily forested locale where it may be tricky to see stones sticking out. Knowing the kind of rocks you’re looking for will make your hunt far more successful.
Fossil Collecting Laws
So what are the fossil collecting laws? The requirements vary based on your location so you’ll have to do a bit of area research. Your local government should inform you of whether you’re going to a place where you are allowed to take fossils home with you. If not, you will have to simply record pictures and notes and leave the fossils behind.
This is an important step in your preparation that many people overlook. Always be familiar with local laws while fossil hunting, even around your neighborhood!
This can be tricky. As fossil enthusiast Cindy Lou explained:
The United States nicely encapsulates most of the legal fossil extremes within its borders. The laws vary from no restrictions at all on private land where all fossils may be excavated and sold legally while marking many federal parks and preserve completely off-limits.cindylouwho2.com
You’ll need to check with your specific state. Generally, as explained by lawyer Timothy Witt, JD:
When considering the legalities of rock, mineral, or fossil collecting, the foremost principle is that a collector cannot legally take rocks, minerals, or fossils without the permission or consent of whoever has a legal right to those rocks, minerals, or fossils.geology.com
Can You Keep Fossils if You Find Them?
Can you keep the fossils that you find? Smithsonian Magazine explains that if you own private land, you have a legal right to anything you find on the property; if you are anywhere else, you need proper consent from the entity or state that owns the land.
At national parks, keep in mind the museum rule: you can look, admire, and appreciate, but don’t touch or remove anything.
We have another article that covers rules on collecting and selling fossils in greater detail.
Once you understand the legal aspects of fossil hunting, you can start planning your adventures. In my fossil hunting trips, I have found YouTube to be a helpful resource as I prepare for a fossil hunt.
Hundreds of users have created videos of themselves finding fossils. Studying these videos enabled me to arrive at sites feeling a little more practiced in my ability to spot fossils among unsorted rocks or terrain.
The trick is to take it slow and keep an eye out for exposed rocks; these will be the fossils that you can easily extract. You should take photos, especially if you’re at a site where you cannot take fossils. Once you’ve researched, and then refined your research to study your location’s best bets, you’ll be fully prepared to embark on your search for fossils.
What do you Need for Fossil Hunting?
A paleontologist’s tool kit provides essential gear to properly collect and store fossils for transport. My complete gear set is listed below, but you can find most of these items in this INCLY Geology kit from Amazon.
Sometimes, you may not need any gear of your own. A few official fossil dig sites have plastic bags and brushes ready for you to either rent or borrow upon arrival. Check with your location before making the trip.
The American Museum of Natural History has an in-depth resource on fossil preparation. Most fossil hunters prefer to take a specialized geological tool kit with them. This ensures that the essentials are covered. The video below details some tools commonly used by paleontologists when fossil hunting.
Gear for Beginners
You may wonder where you can find all these pieces of equipment. Luckily, most people already own many of the essentials. Once you gain more experience, you will want to upgrade to higher-quality gear. Beginners need the following items:
- Toilet paper or tissues to wrap delicate fossils and plastic bags to keep them.
- Containers, a marker, and labels to record the location, date, and type of fossil found.
- A journal for sketches and notes.
- Sturdy shoes that have solid traction for the type of terrain you’ll be searching through.
- A backpack large enough to hold any heavier gear and fossils that you collect.
- A first aid kit and any medications that you may need.
- Plenty of water bottles or a large canteen to stay hydrated.
- A map of the area and a compass.
- A cell phone for safety and documentation.
Tools for Advanced Fossil Collecting
As you become more advanced, there are additional tools you could bring. While the hobby can become more expensive as you perform specialized tasks, you can simply add a few items at a time. We recommend the following tools for when you become more advanced.
- A geological hammer and drilling hammer break away rocks.
- Chisels for fossil extraction.
- Goggles and gloves for protection when extracting rocks.
- Those searching in water should consider a pair of waders to make the search easier.
- As you become more advanced, you may wish to upgrade to a feature-rich camera to take better photos and one that can survive outdoors.
If you are headed to a site where taking fossils is not allowed, or you just prefer to leave them be, your journal becomes critical. I am a terrible artist, but sketching fossils and jotting notes as I happened upon them enhanced the excitement of the moment. I feel it helped me explain my findings much better.
The Best Fossil Hunting Tools
After going and buying various products individually, I finally stumbled upon the INCLY 15-piece Geology Kit. This kit provides the essential tools needed for fossil hunting in one stylish bag. Take a look at these features and see for yourself.
- Includes a stainless-steel rock pick hammer that is a durable drop-forged one-piece all-steel head-handle construction. It provides a fully polished finish and additional rust-preventative clear coating.
- Includes a large Musette Bag to carry all of your tools and any fossils that you find.
- Added accessories include 3 in one whistle (thermometer, compass) jeweler’s loupe, paintbrush, safety goggles, and gloves!
- 3 different sizes of chisels (7.8-inch, 9.8-inch & 11.8-inch) cover different types of work.
Plan Your Fossil Hunting Trip
Once you’ve gathered the proper materials, you’ll only need a few more things: patience, persistence, and a positive attitude. Arrive at your dig site early enough to enjoy the day.
If you’re going hunting very casually, plan to spend 2 to 4 hours hunting. This allows you time to familiarize yourself with the hobby. Once you’re more serious about finding valuable or unique fossils, plan to spend around 4 to 8 hours or more searching.
If you’re in a larger park or area, consider bringing a map or GPS to ensure that you find your way back. I once spent 5 hours waiting for a friend who thought they had found a dinosaur track and ended up getting completely lost. If you’re flexible on the timing of your dig, consider waiting for the day after a big storm, especially if you live close to the ocean. Large storms could expose new layers of rock.
Define Your Fossil Hunting Goals
While you generally know what to look for from your research and refinement, try not to be too narrow in your search. Despite the somewhat rigid nature of paleontology, discoveries are made every day.
Successful paleontologists often fail to find what they set out to uncover only to find something unexpected. If you are interested in learning about becoming a paleontologist we have an in-depth guide on the topic.
Maximize your chances of finding something by moving slowly and taking time to observe everything around you. Avoid intentionally looking for one thing.
Paleontologists simply take in everything they see. When they find a fossil it’s usually because they just happened upon it. Experience hones skill in noticing unusual rocks and you will get the hang of how to spot a fossil rock.
Whether or not you plan to dig, prioritize searching for rocks that jut out at odd angles. If you are looking in water or a place where rocks are smooth-surfaced, run your fingers along rocks to feel for subtle indentations.
Write down all your observations, so that the next time you go fossil-hunting, you’ll be able to start noticing patterns for where to find the best fossils in your area. Take as many pictures as possible for reference.
It’s common for amateur paleontologists to leave fossils behind. This provides others a chance to discover them.
However, if you find a fossil that you’d like to keep, wrap it very carefully in tissues, and place it in a plastic bag or container. Consult any reference materials you might have and label the fossil with the site, date, time of discovery, and your best guess for the type of fossil you’ve found.
Identify Your Fossils
Once you have made your first fossil discovery and have successfully prepared it, you can move to the next step: identification. Fossil identification can become quite complex.
Many useful guidebooks exist and make a great addition to your kit. A simple Google search provides a wealth of knowledge on fossils, but you may wish to consult an expert directly.
If you have a smartphone, the myFOSSIL app enables you to quickly share photos of fossils you find and to connect with others who have found similar fossils. Their online community allows amateurs to connect with more experienced fossil collectors.
You should also visit the Paleontological Society’s website to submit your findings. They offer expert opinions that can help you verify what you may have discovered. This feedback can greatly enhance the fossil-hunting experience.
Start Collecting Fossils
Remember to have fun and enjoy your fossils! When you return home, display them carefully. Check with local museums or consult paleontologists online. Ultimately, if you have something of scientific significance then you should be willing to donate it.
While collections are fun, the fossil trade has created many ethical concerns. Amateur fossil hunters and private collectors may deprive scientists of the opportunity to analyze these rare items.
Kathy Wankel stumbled across a surprisingly complete Tyrannosaurus while camping. This dinosaur will be displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Dubbed, the Nation’s T. rex, Wankel unwittingly made a tremendous contribution to science. Keep your eyes open and you too may find something incredible to add to your collection or give to the world.
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