Fossil Hunting

To start fossil hunting you should get answers on FIVE basic questions: WHERE to look for fossils, WHAT are fossils, HOW to identify fossils, WHAT equipment you need, and HOW to document the specimens and localities.

Laws and Regulations

Surface Geology and Stratigraphy

Basic Equipment and Safety Gear

Fossil Collecting Code of Ethics

Fossil Data Management

How to start 

Fossil Collection or Fossil Hunting 

Laws and Regulations

Becoming familiar with your local laws and regulations is the most important step to take before you start fossil hunting. This will prevent you from any legal complications and keep you in compliance with the law! Whether the land you’d like to fossil hunt on is privately owned or owned/managed by federal, state, tribal, county, city or other entities if the first thing to determine.    

Palaeontology is a science the study of the evolution and history of life. Vertebrate fossils, including vertebrate trace fossils such as trackways, coprolites, etc., are rare and scientifically important. Many critically important scientific discoveries were made based on just a one or few specimens, and many important discoveries have been made by amateur fossil hunters. We strongly encourage you to contact your local museum or university if you discover any fossils that may have scientific importance.

  • Check the land ownership. It is unlawful to collect fossils, gems and minerals (or anything else) from private land without permission from the land owner.
  • It is unlawful to collect vertebrate fossils from federal land or tribal lands without a permit. However, on certain types of federal land (e.g. BLM land), it is legal to collect certain amounts of common fossil plant fossils (e.g. wood) and invertebrate fossils (e.g. shells) for non-commercial (hobby) purposes.   
  • Check with the Department of Natural Resources or equivalent agency in your state. DNR is the best source for up-to-date information, state specific regulations, maps, and surveys.
  • Entering potential site or land, always check the greeting board. Sometimes owners put contact information and even specify the map where fossils or minerals can and cannot be collected.
  • If you come across a vertebrate fossil take pictures of the object and surroundings, GPS coordinates, and send this information to your local natural history museum or university with a geology or palaeontology department. Please do not move or collect the fossil until it has been examined and documented by a professional paleontologist.
  • TIP: Construction sites and quarries might be good sites. Call the owners and check if rock or fossil collection is allowed after hours. I know a few places where employees leave nice minerals for collectors to pick up during weekends. Safety equipment like a hard hat might be required to enter the site, check beforehand.  
  • TIP: Private lands might allow you to keep vertebrate or non-vertebrate fossils or any rocks or minerals. Check private quarries who do ”fossil tours” and ask about their rules and policies.

surface geology and stratigraphy

Fossil hunting is like a treasure hunting. What could be better than being the first person to reveal a long-extinct animal to the world? 

If you decided to join an amateur fossil club, start with getting answers on three basic questions: where to dig, what to dig, and what gear to use. 

Stratigraphy and surface geology answer the questions “where.” Getting familiar with surface geology is the key to start looking for fossils. 

The first step is to find a geologic map of your region. A simple google search with the keywords “geological map of [and the name of your state or area]” should help you find your surface geological map. The USGS website is the best resource available in the USA. 

To make a geologic map, geologists use a base map which shows topography, landmarks, and water; and then overlay geologic features such as basement rock, bedrock and/or surficial sediments. Each unit represents a unique and mappable rock type and age. 

Look at the legend of your geologic map and find the section “sedimentary rocks”, then explore which rocks units might have fossil potential. 

Why sedimentary rocks? Because fossils are mostly found in sedimentary deposits (bedrock units and surficial deposits) as opposed to igneous or metamorphic rock units, so we need to look for the specific types and ages of rocks. For example, if the land unit is identified as Quaternary (younger than 2.5 million years old), the chances of finding Mesozoic fossils are very close to zero, so to find, for example, a Cretaceous ammonite fossil we need to dig in sediments that are aged 145-66 million years old. 

So what is stratigraphy and why it does it matter for fossil hunters? 

First, we need to understand how fossils are formed. For the bones and soft tissues to be preserved as fossils, they must be buried relatively quickly. This could happen, for example, during a flood or when an animal is washed out to sea, river, or lake and then quickly covered by sand or mud.

Carcasses might also be buried by a sand storm or by a predator. But fossilization is most likely to occur in lowland sedimentary deposits as opposed to uplands which have higher rates of erosion. Lakes with abundant carbonate provide more favorable conditions for fossil preservation than rivers and streams which have higher energy and are more likely to break skeletal remains before they are buried. 

Second, different types of rocks indicate different depositional environments. For example, limestone forms in freshwater or marine environments with abundant carbonate and preserve animals such as brachiopods, clams, corals, sponges, crinoids. Shale is formed from mud or clay which is abundant in lakes.

One of the oldest and most famous fossil localities in the world is the Burgess Shale in Canada. This site is unique because of its exceptional preservation of middle Cambrian animals. 

Do we always find fossils in sedimentary rocks? Most likely! However, volcanic ash is another type of material that preserves carcasses and soft tissues. Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska is a great example of this type of preservation that is of late Miocene age.

Stratigraphy shows us how rock layers (strata) are positioned and their relationship to the geological time scale. Sediments gradually accumulate upon one another in layers with younger layers on top and older layers below. It’s called the Principle of Superposition. Sedimentary rock strata were originally laid down in horizontal beds (called the Law of Original Horizontality). But rocks are not always arranged horizontally. Volcanic rocks often cut through the layers and uplift, faulting, and folding distort and change the orientation of rock layers.  

basic and safety gear

  • Safety Goggles

Rock chips can fly with the speed of a bullet. Eye protection is super important.
Tip 1️⃣ Keep your face as far as possible from the surface you are striking when working with a rock hammer. 
Tip 2️⃣ There are many goggles available on the market. Check for certified and impact-resistant ones. You might also like anti-fog/anti-scratch/side covers/space for sunglasses features.
Tip 3️⃣ I have found wearing glasses with an elastic band pretty uncomfortable and switched to the ones with temples.

  • Hammers 

I’m a fan of Estwing geological hammers but choosing the right hammer for you depends on the rock, your weight, personal preferences, and so on. I mostly use a 22 oz geological hammer with a pointed tip and shock reduction grip.
Another favorite is a 3-pound sledge drilling/crack hammer.
Tip 4️⃣ If I work with a hammer for an extended time I wear a wrist compression strap or wrist brace.
Tip 5️⃣ A rock hammer also comes handy climbing down a steep hill or as protective equipment.

  • Chisels

Chisel or chisel sets are great for splitting rocks.
Tip 6️⃣ I highly recommend starting with the one with hand protection.

  • Disposable gloves and Ziploc bags

I’m avoiding non-disposable gloves when the ground is very muddy and I have limited access to clean water. I know that many folks like non-disposable work gloves but I got really tired of constantly cleaning them.

Tip 7️⃣ I found Ziplocs a better alternative to plastic boxes. You don’t need to clean it after each fossil hunt and it saves space in your backpack.
Tip 8️⃣ I have one Ziploc bag filled with tissue paper and kitchen towels for delicate finds.

  • Rainboots and good hiking or rock-climbing boots

If you are exploring streams or rivers rainboots are must-have.
Tip 9️⃣ After a few rocks fell on my feet, I use thick socks. Some fossil hunters wear steel-toed boots.

  • Sieve, bucket, and shovel

My favorite is a tactical multitasking shovel with a starter and compass.
Tip 🔟 Consider a sieve that installs on top of your bucket.

I prefer the backcountry for fossil hunting and I always carry safety equipment. If you’ve never hiked in the backcountry, I’d probably recommend starting with known fossil sites. Don’t forget water and snacks. Here is what I carry for backcountry fossil hunting: knives, pepper spray, bear spray, whistle, first aid kit, emergency poncho (also could be used as a rain poncho), compass, water, snack bars.

Tip 1️⃣
Always tell your friends and family where you are going and make sure to leave them instructions to follow in case you have a problem.
Tip 2️⃣ Know your local wildlife and how to behave if you encounter it and! how to avoid this encounter!
Tip 3️⃣ Talk to your local Rangers. They know when animals are active, and can give you the best advice on how to avoid them.
Tip 4️⃣ If you carry a spray or knife or any safety gear, don’t zip it in your backpack, it should be easily and quickly accessible within a second, and practice with it at least once before you go. I like scuba diving knives that come with leg holsters.
Tip 5️⃣ Always wear a hard hat if you are working at the base of a cliff or steep slope, or better yet, don’t work at the base of a cliff at all!

And the most important: it’s our responsibility to keep wildlife safe from us.

Fossil Collecting Code of Ethics

1️⃣ Paleontological resources, or fossils, are important for scientific, scholarly, and educational use by both professionals and amateurs.

2️⃣ Numbers of fossil specimens vary widely by type and locality. Fossils are non-renewable resources. Thus, once destroyed they can never be replaced. Therefore, preserving and conserving fossils with scientific importance so they and their contextual data are available for educational and research purposes is critical.

3️⃣ Leaving fossils uncollected ensures their degradation and ultimate loss to the science and education because once fossils are eroded onto the ground surface, they are quickly destroyed by natural processes including weathering, fluvial transport, etc.

4️⃣ Proper documentation of fossil localities is critical for scientific and educational purposes.

Thus, fossil collecting should comply with the following procedures:

1️⃣ Permits and permission will be obtained from private landowners or government agencies as applicable before any fossils are collected.

2️⃣ All fossils will be collected in compliance with applicable land management policies and procedures and scientific standards.

3️⃣ Fossil collectors will make every effort to have fossil specimens of unique, rare, or exceptional value to the scientific community transferred to an appropriate institution that will provide for the care, curation, and study of the fossil(s).

4️⃣ Make sure that no damage is done to the land including any natural or cultural resources as a result of the collecting activities.

5️⃣ Fossil collectors will report any significant discoveries of scientific or public interest to scientific experts, and strive to place specimens of unique scientific interest into responsible hands for study, research and preservation.

The rules are based on “The Constitution of The Paleontological Society (Article I)” and “AAPS Commercial Paleontology Code of Ethics”.

Fossil Data Management

Let’s start with the purpose of data management and why the proper documentation of a fossil specimen’s data is as important as the specimen itself.

The most obvious reason is to provide a record and thorough documentation of the localities you discovered or visited and what fossils were found there. After a few weeks of active field work, it’s easy to forget which fossils came from which fossil localities.

Second, if you decide to donate a fossil specimen to a museum or university as many amateurs do, it is important to provide locality data along with the fossil so the fossil can be studied scientifically.

For each fossil locality, it is important to document the following data:

1️⃣ Date the specimen(s) was collected.

2️⃣ Name of collector(s).

3️⃣ Name or number of the site you visited. The locality could be recorded as Name-Date-Locality#. For example, “AI19Oct20-3”, where AI is my name and “3” says that it was the third site visited on October 19, 2020.

4️⃣ Coordinates in latitude and longitude, UTM or PLSS (Section, Township, Range). Geographic coordinates are the most important data as they can help to retrospectively identify the formation and age, as well the land owner (please read the “Laws” section).

The data above can be marked on a bag or box containing the fossil specimen(s).

In addition to that, you could document the following information in your field trip book:

5️⃣ Fossil identification and description. For example, “Aturia angustata (nautiloid)” or “nautiloid” if the genus and species cannot be identified. Description would be “shell fragment or complete phragmocone.

6️⃣ Geologic unit (formation, member, submember) and  (e.g. Cretaceous). 

7️⃣ Stratigraphy and lithology. Stratigraphic position would be very important is possible. For example, “1 meter above the white ash layer” or “in limestone bed”.

8️⃣ Other notes: weather, site access notes, road conditions, who was at the site with you. This information could be important for the future site visits.

Many thanks to my dear friend and paleo colleague Dr. Paul C. Murphey for teaching me how to document stratigraphy, fossil localities and introducing me to fossil data collection, mitigation and resource management.

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"Nature has a habit of placing some of her most attractive treasures in places where it is difficult to locate and obtain them."

"Every great anthropologic and paleontologic discovery fits into its proper place, enabling us gradually to fill out, one after another, the great branching lines of human ascent and to connect with the branches definite phases of industry and art. This gives us a double means of interpretation, archaeological and anatomical. While many branches and links in the chain remain to be discovered, we are now in a position to predict with great confidence not only what the various branches will be like but where they are most like to be found."

In Henry Fairfield Osborn, 'Osborn States the Case For Evolution', New York Times (12 Jul 1925), XX1

"I shall collect plants and fossils, and with the best of instruments make astronomic observations. Yet this is not the main purpose of my journey. I shall endeavor to find out how nature's forces act upon one another, and in what manner the geographic environment exerts its influence on animals and plants. In short, I must find out about the harmony in nature."

Letter to Karl Freiesleben (Jun 1799). In Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander van Humboldt 1769-1859 (1955), 87.

"In vertebrate paleontology, increasing knowledge leads to triumphant loss of clarity."

Synapsid Evolution and Dentition, International Colloquium on the Evolution of Mammals, Brussels (1962.)

"Cuvier … brings the void to life again, without uttering abracadabras, he excavates a fragment of gypsum, spies a footprint and shouts: “Look!” And suddenly the marbles are teeming with creatures, the dead come to life again, the world turns!"
From 'La Peau de Chagrin' (1831). As translated as by Helen Constantine The Wild Ass’s Skin (2012), 19.

"I am particularly fond of (Emmanuel Mendes da Costa’s) Natural History of Fossils because treatise, more than any other work written in English, records a short episode expressing one of the grand false starts in the history of natural science–and nothing can be quite so informative and instructive as a juicy mistake."

"I want to argue that the ‘sudden’ appearance of species in the fossil record and our failure to note subsequent evolutionary change within them is the proper prediction of evolutionary theory as we understand it ... Evolutionary ‘sequences’ are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top."

"In July [1837] opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts (especially latter), origin of all my views."

Discours sur les révolutions du globe, (Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe), originally the introduction to Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles des quadrupèdes (1812). Translated by Ian Johnston from the 1825 edition. Online at Vancouver Island University website.

"In July [1837] opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts (especially latter), origin of all my views."

In Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter (1888), Vol. 1, 276. 

"Kids like their fossils. I’ve taken my godson fossil-hunting and there’s nothing more magical than finding a shiny shell and knowing you’re the first person to have seen it for 150 million years."

"One must believe that every living thing whatsoever must change insensibly in its organization and in its form... One must therefore never expect to find among living species all those which are found in the fossil state, and yet one may not assume that any species has really been lost or rendered extinct."

Système des Animaux sans Vertébres, (1801) trans. D. R. Newth, in Annals of Science (1952), 5, 253-4.

"Taxonomy is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as mere “stamp collecting” (a designation that this former philatelist deeply resents). If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both reflect and direct our thinking. The way we order represents the way we think. Historical changes in classification are the fossilized indicators of conceptual revolutions."

In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983, 2010), 72

"The observer listens to nature: the experimenter questions and forces her to reveal herself."

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