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Fossils in Your Backyard

When you think of where to find fossils, what sort of locations come to mind? For many people, fossils conjure up images of paleontologists trekking miles across remote deserts under a blistering sun. But you don’t have to travel to Egypt or Peru to find traces of prehistoric life- in fact, it may be just a short walk or drive to the nearest park, creek, or highway.

Fossils, Fossils, Everywhere

Contrary to popular belief, fossils in general are not particularly rare. There are billions upon billions of fossils buried throughout the geologic column. Fossils can be found on mountaintops, along highways, in arid badlands, in the middle of cities, and even underwater. Fossils of hard-shelled invertebrates, like snails or clams, are by far the most abundant and found all around the world in great quantities. Fossils are typically found in sedimentary rock that is formed from particles of accumulated sediment, usually deposited by water. Examples of fossil-bearing sedimentary rock include sandstone, mudstone, shale, and limestone. Limestones and shales were especially prevalent where I grew up in western Illinois and where I went to college in southwestern Ohio. Over the years, I've found hundreds of crinoid stems, brachiopods, bryozoans, corals, and trilobites in these states.

(Left: fragments of crinoid stems found in western Illinois. Right: various invertebrate fossils found near Caesar's Creek, Ohio.)

Where Do I Start?

Looking for fossils isn't as simple as finding any random rock layer and just digging away. It helps to have some idea of where to look. There are a number of resources you can use to learn about local fossil-bearing rocks. For starters, there are various lists of fossil sites floating around online, often organized by state. You can find photos and information on fossils that have been found in your area on myFossil. Alternatively, try searching the Fossil Forum website for keywords or make a post yourself to interact directly with knowledgeable fossil hunters, who just might know about some great little-known localities!

In the right areas, roadcuts (left) can be excellent places to find fossils. There are hundreds of spots around the American Midwest where you can pull over and find ancient marine invertebrates on sloping banks adjacent to the highway. I've spent hundreds of hours on my hands and knees on roadcuts much like this one in Ohio and Illinois.

There are also many places where you can pay a fee and dig for the day. The fossils to the right are some of the shark teeth and whale bone fragments that I found in Ernst Quarry near Bakersfield, California. While average-sized shark teeth are the most common fossil (the area is even known as Sharktooth Hill), you can also find the significantly larger teeth of megalodon as well as the remains of dolphins, baleen whales, and sea lions.

Below is a very small sample of shark teeth, mammal teeth, bones, scutes, and turtle shell fragments found on an excursion to the Peace River in Florida. When finding these, my friends and I were waist-deep in water, shoveling sediment from the river bottom into sieves to filter out the fossils. Shark teeth are undoubtedly the most common find, and there have been millions of them found in the Peace River over the years. Rarer finds include remains of mastodons, glyptodonts (giant, extinct relatives of armadillos), and teeth of horses, llamas, and other mammals that used to roam North America. If you're lucky, you can even find an enormous megalodon tooth!

You don't need any fancy equipment to go fossil hunting. Often, all you need is aluminum foil or toilet paper to securely wrap up your discoveries and a Ziploc bag to store them. In some places, it is helpful to have a sieve (you can make one yourself by following tutorials online) or a chisel-edge rock hammer (sometimes called bricklayer or mason's hammers), though a large flathead screwdriver will do in a pinch to pry apart layers of shale. And, of course, don't forget to bring plenty of water!

Before heading out, be sure to know what your local laws say about fossil collecting. In the United States, the collection of vertebrate fossil material on public land is usually forbidden, but plants and invertebrates, such as clams, brachiopods, or trilobites, are fair game (except within state or national parks, monuments, etc. where removal of any physical or biological feature without a permit is against the law). Some locations, such as Caesar's Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio, allow fossil collecting after obtaining a (free) permit. Laws can vary locally and by state, so always check before you go!

What Do I Do When I Find a Fossil?

If you've found a fossil of a vertebrate, or if you've found any fossil in a national or state park, you should alert a park ranger or a local museum. Be sure to describe what you've found and, most importantly, give as precise of a location as you can, providing GPS coordinates if possible. A couple of friends and I recently did just this while visiting Badlands National Park, after we happened upon the foot bones of an extinct mammal called an oreodont (below).

Do you have questions about going on your own fossil hunting adventure? Have you found fossils yourself? We'd love to hear from you! Shoot us an email or message us on Facebook with any inquiries or comments.

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