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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Logo The Department of Paleobiology - The Life of a Vertebrate Fossil
Level 2 - Track Down Fossils - Where Is It?
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To find a fossil, you have to know where to look. You can:

READ about where other people found fossils.

STUDY geologic maps to find where the right kinds of rocks occur. Fossils are usually found in sedimentary rocks--rocks formed from sediments carried by wind, water or ice, and deposited in layers. When animals die, their bones might be preserved as fossils if they are buried by sediments before there is time for them to disintegrate or be recycled by other organisms.

Here is a field team searching a fossil site for evidence of fossils in South Carolina.

"PROSPECT" for fossils by looking for evidence of bones in rocks. Fossil vertebrates can be found in many different situations:

  • Eroding "badlands" outcrops, especially in arid climates
  • Rock exposures in banks cut by stream action or ocean waves
  • Industrial rock quarries or mines
  • Road-cuts, building excavation sites
  • Any outcrops of rock strata that preserved organic remains from ancient land or ocean enviroments

Knowing where to look and recognizing fossils takes practice, but there are many places where fossil bones can be found.

Badlands exposures like these are ideal for finding vertebrate fossils. These Pliocene deposits east of Lake Turkana, Kenya, have abundant but fragmentary remains of ancient mammals, crocodiles, and fish.   A Smithsonian field crew probes sediments for fossil bones. Stakes are used for measuring the position of the fossils within 1 meter grids. Harleyville, South Carolina.

Arrow points to fossil bone being excavated from an outcrop by a paleontologist. The dark area above the arrow is freshly dug sediment.

STOP: Before you look for fossils, you must have permission from the property owners to explore their land. This is also important when collecting on Federal or state property. Seek advice from the federal or state agency responsible for the land you wish to collect on before you collect. Different land management agencies have different regulations concerning fossil collecting, and you need to know the rules that apply.

Worth the Time?

You have to be selective about your digging and collecting time. Bones are worth collecting if:

  • They help you answer an interesting research question.
  • They're intact enough to be identified.
  • They're in a place where they can be collected safely.
  • You have permits and enough time to do a good job.

Fossil Sleuth

One good place to look for fossils is in a quarry or mine where a lot of digging has already been done for you. In this example, you have special permission to collect in a limestone quarry in South Carolina, where fossils of marine vertebrates from two different periods of Earth's history have been found before. To find more fossils, here's what you'll look for:

  • Dark shapes against the lighter limestone matrix.

The red arrow indicates where the fossil is located. This is from a site in South Carolina.

They could be:

  • Sharks' teeth.
  • Skulls or other bones from ancient whales or seacows.

STOP: This is an active industrial quarry - watch out! Wet spots could be mud holes that will swallow you up to your knees. Keep clear of quarry trucks that could run you over. And stay away from quarry walls - pieces of rock can fall on your head.

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