KIDS ASK! How Do You Find Fossils?

Smile! This week is all about FOSSILS!
(All photos credit: pixabay)

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part of our work is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam-packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:


Now this is a truth all our science friends, young and old, can agree on: fossils are really, really, REALLY cool!  Whether it’s a giant Megalodon tooth bigger than your hand or a towering T-Rex,  fossils show us a whole world that existed before humans were ever here.  It’s amazing to think that once upon a time, here on this same earth, there were animals like stegosauruses, triceratops, and pterodactyls.  It’s amazing to look at a fossil and realize that this earth is actually very, very old, and our lives are just one little part in the long and beautiful story of life on earth! 

It’s no wonder that our young scientists want to know where to find fossils, and we at High Touch High Tech are happy to tell you more.  When you watch a movie or TV show, you often see Paleontologists (a.k.a. the awesome scientists who get to find and study fossils for a living), carefully brushing dirt away from a huge skeleton emerging from the ground.  Paleontologists really do find huge skeletons from time to time, but the truth is they are pretty rare.  So, bad news first: if you go hunting for fossils you probably won’t find a whole Brontosaurus.  Now for the good news: there are MANY other kinds of fossils you can find, and they are more common than you might think! 

Here’s the real secret of fossil hunting: it’s all about WHERE you look.  Paleontologists and Fossil Fans all follow the same rule of thumb: look for fossils where fossils have been found before.  Usually people find fossils in certain locations because those places had the best conditions for ancient animals and plants to turn into fossils.  For example, there’s a place in England called “Jurassic Beach” where some of the first fossils known to science were found hundreds of years ago, and people still go to find awesome fossils today.  Jurassic Beach is a great place for fossil hunting because a long time ago it was a warm ocean, full of many kinds of life AND the right kind of mud in the ocean to fossilize the bodies of ancient animals and plants.  Before you start your fossil hunt, remember that fossils are only found in places with sedimentary rocks, such as  limestone, sandstone, or shale.  Sedimentary rocks mean that once upon a time a place was full of the kind of mud and sand that makes fossils.

Jurassic Beach in England. See all of the layers in the rock? Places that look like this can be a good place to find fossils!

One way YOU can start finding fossils is to google “best places to find fossils in (your state or country).”  You will see lots of information about the best places to go, and you might even find a few fossil-hunting clubs and organizations that lead trips to those places.  Going with a fossil club will help you learn quickly how to spot fossils, as you go on the hunt with other Fossil Fans.  If you can’t travel, that’s OK too – there might be some fine fossil-hunting spots right in your own backyard!  A great place to find fossils might be what’s called a “road cut,” where construction has cut through a hill or mountain.  If you look at the sides of the road cut and see many layers of different rock, you might be on the road to a fossil find! Another great place can be on steep riverbanks with many layers in the sides.  Just be sure to hunt with an adult science friend so they can help keep you safe, and make sure you are on public land, not in someone’s private backyard. 

These are Ammonites, a very abundant fossil. Keep your eyes open for round and spiral shapes!

The first rule of fossil hunting is: it’s all about WHERE you look.  The second is: it’s all about WHAT you look for.  You might be thinking of big T-Rex skulls or Velociraptor claws when you think of fossils, but there are a lot more fossils out there than that.  They’re just very small, and you have to learn how to look for small clues, not big ones.  Many Paleontologists recommend taking along a special book called a field guide to help you identify what you see.  The vast majority of fossils come from animals called invertebrates, animals like today’s mollusks, snails, and insects.  There are also many types of fossilized plants to keep an eye out for.  When you are out fossil hunting, you will be looking at every rock you see, just like a detective looks for clues.  Look for rocks with shell or leaf shapes in them.  Those shapes are usually fossils!  If your adult science friend has a special tool called a rock hammer, you can even try to split rocks open to see what’s inside.  Look for round rocks called nodules, which often form around a fossil.  

Some fossils to look out for are: Nautilus fossils (above) and Trilobite fossils (below).

Because we know our young scientists are such big Fossil Fans, we’ve included lots of resources below to help you get started.  There are lists of the best places to hunt, a link to a real fossil hunting club, and many videos of experts fossil hunting to show you more.  Happy hunting, science friends!


Best public sites to find fossils:

More about the best places to look and what to look for (very helpful website!):

The North Carolina Fossil Club: 

A Paleontologist talking about how he finds fossils:

An awesome explanation of the different types of fossils you can find:

How to tell a fossilized bone from a rock:

An excellent explanation of how and where YOU can find fossils (with a good recommendation for books and guides that can help you):

Splitting open nodules on Jurassic Beach:

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