Have you ever wondered how scientists can know so much about things that happened thousands of years ago? For example, how do they know what certain dinosaurs looked like? After all, those dinosaurs have been extinct for thousands of years, right?
Fossils are the actual remains or impressions left by plants or animals that were once alive hundreds or thousands of years ago. Over time, the organic (living) material left behind is replaced with minerals, leaving a fossil that is like a stone but looks like the original plant or animal. When scientists find these imprints — like an ancient x-ray — they can learn a lot about the animals or plants that left their mark.
Not all plant and animal remains become fossilized over time. Certain conditions have to exist for fossilization to take place. For example, many fossils form when plant and animal remains are buried — and thereby preserved — by mud, sand or soil. Fossilization also takes a lot of time. How long? How about 10,000 years or more. So if you go and bury a plant leaf under a pile of mud in the backyard, don’t expect a fossil to form in your lifetime!
Despite the requirements of time and preservation, fossils can be found just about anywhere. From the tops of mountains to the depths of the seas, fossils can be found all over Earth. Some sit on top of sandy beaches while others stay hidden deep underground. Fossils are often unearthed during construction or new mining projects. As the ground is dug up and moved about, fossils once hidden deep underground suddenly come to light. In a similar way, you can often find fossils in shallow stream beds, as the constantly flowing water cuts through the old earth to reveal what’s hidden below.
School of Hard Rocks: Fossil Collecting for Beginners
You may ask, why do people collect fossils? Think of fossil collecting as ancient antique hunting, a way to connect with the past. There’s something mysterious and powerful about holding a 400-million-year-old creature in the palm of your hand.
People have countless reasons for fossil collecting:
- A love of modern nature and a desire to know and understand how it came to be.
- A love of history.
- A love of the Earth and the mystery of its creation.
- A desire to inspire a child to learn and to share your passion for geology and earth science.
- Even wanting a hobby, one that will keep you in good physical shape while exercising your mind, is a great reason for becoming a fossil collector.
Plus, FOSSILS ARE COOL! So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get started!
It’s easy to get started with a fossil collection: just keep your eyes open the next time you walk along a dry creek bed or along a washed out ravine. Depending on your location, you might spot the remains of an ancient creature.
Don’t want to leave your fossil finding to “Lady Luck?” Pick up a rock-hounding book for your locale. The authors of rock-hounding books let you in on lots of tips for success. They also let you know where you can hunt, how to ask permission of landowners and places to avoid.
Parks are a great place to kick off a fossil hunt, many are home to impressive collections, while others are untapped treasure chests, waiting to be pried open. The type of fossil you may find at a park will of course be dictated by the area’s geographic features, meaning that chances of finding fossilized sea life in the mountains are less common than if the park is nestled beside a major body of water. Don’t forget to take your camera! Nothing beats the thrill of the find! You’ll want to have at least a few pictures in the field to document the location and the moment.
Paleontologists—professional fossil finders—break fossils down into two main groups: trace fossils and body fossils. Trace fossils are records of an animal’s life, they can include footprints, trackways, and coprolites (fossilized poop!), and tell a story about how the creature lived, and give a relatively accurate idea of their size. Body fossils, the most sought after type of fossil, are fossilized remains of a plant or animal, and can be as tiny as an insect or as large as a mammoth, obviously the latter finding is rare and less likely to be found in a US park, but finding small fossilized wildlife and plants is still an amazing discovery.
Here are a few tips to get you on your way to a stellar fossil collection of your own!
#1: When searching for fossils, know they only form in sedimentary rocks.
Sedimentary rock is a type of rock formed by the deposition of minerals and other materials at the Earth’s surface or within bodies of water. Sedimentary rocks are formed over a long period of time in the accumulation of debris or sediments. Such materials you’ll likely find fossils in include clay, limestone, shale, and sandstone.
#2: Do a search for fossil websites and fossil documents for your state, region, locality.
With a little research, you can find pictures of local fossils in your area & perhaps even a map of where to find them. Check out this site that breaks up fossils found in the United States by region: Teacher Friendly Guide to Geology: Fossils by US Region,
Familiarize yourself with what you are likely to find, and remember that the fossils will probably be in matrix (rock) and you will only find a small portion peeking out. Local museums are a great way to find out what fossils are native to your locale & are available for public viewing. This will also teach you what kind of fossil hunting you will be doing – beach combing, sifting for sharks teeth, breaking shale, or walking road cuts and dry washes.
#3: Do a search for local rock, mineral and fossil clubs in your area.
Mentoring from experienced members is invaluable! And they may even have group field trips and digs that you can attend! While you are at it, see if there are any fossil parks near you.
#4: Your first outing – what do you need?
Something to carry your fossils in, such as a bag, pail or backpack with a handle is good for carrying your finds. Other tools you’ll want to bring along include: a field guide to record your findings, pencil, compass, trowel or small shovel, paintbrush to sweep away the debris, a sieve if looking for sharks’ teeth, etc. in creeks and a hammer to knock away excess rock if desired. You can also include some graphing paper & a measuring tape to take note of your dig site if you’re planning to return.
#5: Identifying your Fossils:
Bring home anything that looks like it may be a fossil, you just never know. What you may initially believe to be a strange looking rock could be a real fossil! Fossils come in many shapes and sizes. Paleontologists classify and identify fossils based on their shapes and appearance.
Thousands of different fossils can be found in the United States. Identifying all of the types requires experts; however, many of the most common types can be easily identified. If you think you know the kind of fossil (eg., trilobite, brachiopod) do a quick Google search to find out what types of fossils can be found in your locale or area the fossil was found. Use the resources you find and compare the information with what you have. If you don’t know what kind of fossil you have, check out this site that can try and point you in the right direction: Identifying Unknown Fossils (by shape).
Differences between some fossils are subtle and are easily missed by the amateur collector. Also, some fossils are poorly preserved, broken, or partially covered in the matrix of the surrounding rock so that their true size and shape is hidden. But the most commonly found fossils can usually be classified to their group with just a few observations.
The following chart may help you to identify fossils you have found. There are many shapes and fossils not shown on this diagram, but all of the common shapes are shown. Once you’ve identified your shape, click here to learn more about what kind of fossil you have!
The fun doesn’t stop here! Once you’ve started your fossil collection – check out these other ways you can Celebrate National Fossil Day by exploring these incredible resources:
All That Remains: Fossil Finds: Check out this awesome slide show of the most recent discoveries in Paleontology, as recent as September 2013! Which is your favorite? Let us know on our Facebook Page!
The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California: Did you realize you can take a trip back in time to the Ice Age in the heart of one of America’s largest modern cities? It’s true! The urban heart of Los Angeles is the site of a fascinating scientific treasure. Since the early 1900’s, scientists have unearthed the fossilized remains of several different species including saber-toothed cats, mammoths, wolves, bears, ground sloths, bison and horses.
FOSSILGUY.COM: A fantastic resource for future paleontologists & fossil collectors in and around the mid-Atlantic region. This site includes virtual tours of fossil sites, and fossil identification.
10 Weird & Unusual Archeological Finds: Just in time for Halloween – from a saber-toothed squirrel to an ant of prehistoric proportions, check out these weird & spooky finds recently discovered from across the globe!
10 Famous Fossils that Changed Dinosaur History: Not all dinosaur fossils are equally famous, or have had the same profound effect on paleontology. Here are 10 famous fossils that changed, sharpened, or completely altered the views of working scientists (and the general public) about dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles.
National Geographic Education: Fossils: This collection contains a selection of content from NG Education about fossils. Users have the option to use the site search tool to find out more on a variety of fossil & archeology topics.