Fossils for Amateurs

Collecting and studying fossils can be an interesting hobby as well as an important science. Only during the past two centuries has paleontology, the study of fossils, moved to the professional level. Amateurs have collected and studied fossils much longer and today they enjoy field tripe and collecting as much as aver. Major discoveries have bean made by amateurs and many have won acclaim from professional geologists.

Unless the ground is covered with snow, collecting fossils is an all-year occupation. It taken you out-of-doors and off the beaten track. You learn to know your region intimately and enjoy the company of other local “rock hounds.” No other hobby can open such wide vistas of time and space. The study of fossils still has many unsolved problems which a serious amateur can tackle with some chance of personal success. Such a person will understand fossils better if he also keeps up a continued interest in living animals and plants.

So why collect fossils?

Most people collect for the simple fun of it  — tor the fun of tramping and exploring; for the excitement of a rare find; for the challenge of ‘working out” a perfect specimen. But in the course of doing all this, the layers of sedimentary rocks unfold like pages of a gigantic book, revealing the fascinating story of the earth’s long and exciting past Events 50, 100 or 500 million years ago become real because the fossils you have found provide a clear connection with bygone ages.

With the aid of fossils the reconstruction of prehistoric plants and animals was possible, and the story of the evolution of life became clear. Without the evidence of fossils, evolution would still be a theory, not a fact. Fossils help determine whether sediments were formed in shallow or deep seas, in rivers, in swamps or in deserts. Thus they give a clue to the geography and ecology of the past and show how the continents and seas have changed. Fossils prove that Alaska was once connected with Siberia and Australia with Malaya. The distribution of shallow- wafer mollusks aids in tracing ancient shorelines.

Fossils, in addition to being clues to ancient geography, are also clues to the climate of the past. Fossil corals show that warm, shallow seas once covered New York.
And plant fossils show that the climates of Antarctica and Greenland were once mild.

Certain fossils of limited time distribution clearly mark certain beds or strata of rocks. These are index fossils and their occurrence in rocks located miles apart proves these rocks were formed at the same time. This use of fossils to correlate strata is important in mapping rock formations and in locating valuable mineral deposits.

Fossils themselves or rocks located by fossils provide natural resources valued at billions of dollars. Nearly all our fuels are fossil fuels. Coal and oil are the remains of ancient plants and animals. Fossil limestone makes excellent building stones or are cut for ornamental use. Micro-fossils are used as filters, fillers, in polishes and tor many other purposes. Some phosphate beds are associated with large deposits of fossil bones. Amber and jet are fossils used as jewelry.

Studying Fossils

Simply put, the hardest part about studying fossils is first finding a fossil to study.  Considering the earth as a whole, fossils are rare. Many are buried beneath the sea. Forests, grasslands, swamps, deserts, soil and rock debris cover many more. Yet despite all this, fossils are often easy to find.

Where to look for fossils

Look in sedimentary rocks, for these are the principal rocks which may contain fossils. Occasionally fossils are found in beds of volcanic ash or are even preserved in lava, but these are rare. Sedimentary rocks (mainly sandstone, shale and limestone) are common, but not all of them contain fossils. Maps in this book show where such sediments are exposed but this rough data must be supplemented by detailed maps and state geological publications.

In general, fresh exposures of rock are best for collecting. Look in road or railroad cuts. Visit mine dumps, quarries and places where rock is being excavated for new construction. Cliffs, river banks, headlands and other natural exposure are good places also. Remember that all these places involve a certain element of danger. Watch for traffic at road cuts and get permission before entering quarries. Loose rocks can be a danger to you and to anyone below you.

Tools for collecting fossils

The tools used to collect fossils are actually very similar to those used by any rock hound. A geologist’s, plasterer’s or bricklayer’s hemmer is essential. So is a knapsack or stout shoulder beg for carrying specimens. Fossils are often delicate. Take newspaper and wrap each specimen separately as soon ax it is collected. Put a label or slip of paper with each specimen giving location, formation,’ date, and identification if known.

A large and a small cold chisel are needed to remove specimens, tor hammering alone is rarely enough. A emaIl shovel and a steel wrecking bar may also prove handy. You will often need road maps and more detailed topographic or geological maps to locate your outcrops. A magnifying glass or hand lens (5 to 10 power) is worth having. Carry a compass, a first-aid kit and a pocket knife. You may need to carry your own food and wafer too.

How to collect fossils

Take time to survey the area before beginning your hunt for fossils.  Look for rock surfaces where weathering haa exposed fossils. Weathered-out specimens are easy to collect end may be in excellent condition. Turn over rock fragments and study all sides. Break open concretions it they occur. Should you locate vertebrate bones or any fossil you believe rare, leave it intact and get professional help. Valuable fossils have been ruined by bungled attempts to remove them.

Preparation and cleaning

This stage of fossil collection should be done at home after specimens have been removed. The delicate task of cleaning and working out a specimen is best done on a stout table with good light and adequate tools. Old dental tools are excellent for this purpose. Electric-powered hobby sets” often contain small drills and grinders which make the task easy. Bone and other delicate fossils may require a coating of a preservative such as shellac or Alvar to prevent cracking and deterioration.

Identification and exhibition

The process of identifying and then presenting your collection bring your work to a climax. Regional volumes on fossils should be consulted for identification. Secure the aid of geologists at universities and museums. These experts are usually glad to aid an amateur. Spot your specimen with a drop of quick-drying enamel and put your catalog number in India ink on the spot. Record this number and the name, location and other data on a card and also in a separate catalog.

Fossils can be stored in cardboard trays of varying sizes purchased from scientific supply houses. Put your label in the tray beneath the specimen. Keep small specimens in vials. Build exhibit cases or a bank of shallow drawers to hold trays and specimens.

Maps can be very important because so much information is presented in them about sedimentary formations, structures and strata. Without maps the location of fossil deposits is made nearly impossible, so use whatever kinds of maps you have available to help identify a search location:

  • Road maps: Obtain sets of several kinds covering your proposed area. Keep them up to date by marking small back roads on them that may not appear on normal maps.  A good rule of thumb is to leave one set at home to reference and take another set with you into the field.

  • Topographic maps are produced by the U.S. Geological Survey. These are more detailed than road maps and show the land and water features as well as culture (roads, bridges, towns, houses, etc.). An Index Map for your state can be obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey, Washington 25, D.C.

  • Geological maps: These are often prepared by state geological surveys either as a state geological map or in relationship to specific reports. Check with your state survey and get their list of publications.

Books will help you to identity fossils, understand basic geology and the story of evolution. Check the publications and reports of your state geological survey.


The list below will show you excellent specimens and introduce you to fossils that do not occur locally. Many universities and most large cities have museums with fossil collections. Some outstanding ones are listed below:

  • Alabama, University — Alabama Museum of Natural History

  • Aria., Holbrook — Petrified Forest National Monument Museum

  • California, Los Angeles — Los Angeles County Museum

  • Colorado, Denver — Museum of Natural History

  • Colorado, Boulder — University Colorado Museum

  • Connecticut, New Haven — Peabody Museum of Natural  Hist. (Yale Univ.)

  • D.C., Washington — Smithsonian Institute, U.S. National Museum

  • Florida, Gainesville — Florida State Museum, University of Florida

  • Chicago, Illinois — Natural  History Museum,

  • Springfield, Illinois  — Illinois State Museum

  • Kansas, Lawrence — U. of Kansas Museum of Natural History

  • Massachusetts, Cambridge — Museum of Comparative Zoology

  • Michigan, Ann Arbor — University of Michigan Museum

  • Nebraska, Lincoln — University of Nebraska State Museum

  • New York, Albany — New York State Museum, Buffalo

  • New York, New York City — American Museum of Natural History

  • Ohio, Cleveland — Cleveland Museum of Natural History

  • Pennsylvania, Philadelphia —  Academy of Natural  Sciences,

  • Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh —  Carnegie Institute Museum

  • South Dakota, Rapid City — Museum of

  • South Dakota School of Mines

  • Texas, Austin — Texas Memorial Museum

  • Utah, Jensen — Dinosaur National Monument

  • Vernal — Utah Field House of Natural  History

  • Washington., Vantage — Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park Museum

  • Canada, Ottawa, Ontario — Natural Museum of Canada

  • Canada, Toronto, Ontario — Royal Ontario Museum

  • Canada, Montreal, Quebec — Redpath Museum

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