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
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
So why collect fossils?
Most people collect for the simple fun of it
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
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.
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
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
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
MUSEUMS AND EXHIBITS
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
Aria., Holbrook — Petrified
Forest National Monument Museum
California, Los Angeles — Los
Colorado, Denver — Museum of Natural
Colorado, Boulder — University
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
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
Nebraska, Lincoln — University of Nebraska
New York, Albany — New York State
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
Utah, Jensen — Dinosaur National Monument
Vernal — Utah Field House of
Washington., Vantage — Ginkgo Petrified
Forest State Park Museum
Canada, Ottawa, Ontario — Natural
Museum of Canada
Canada, Toronto, Ontario — Royal Ontario
Canada, Montreal, Quebec — Redpath Museum