Look for Fossils in Your Backyard

Are you planning your own fossil hunting expedition? The greatest factor for success in finding fossils is knowing exactly where to look. While you may not find fossils by digging in your own backyard, chances are there are fossils not far from you. Take the time to research where the best fossil sites are and you will find fossils by the bucketful.

Along with information about where to look, you need to know what tools to bring along and things to consider when looking for fossils on someone else's land. Read on to find out what you need to know to mount your own fossil-hunting expedition.

References for Fossil Collecting

Note that most books and websites that deal with fossil collecting are written from an evolutionary worldview. Of course, Answers magazine would never endorse such an interpretation of the fossil record, but these references can be very helpful in finding and identifying fossils if you approach them with a biblical worldview.

  • Books

    First of all, you may want to purchase books that list specific fossils sites in the United States (some are out-of-print but still available on Amazon.com). Three good references are:

    Hunting for Fossils by Marian Murray
    Fossils in America by Jay Ellis Ransom
    Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States by Jasper Burns

  • Websites

    Try a web search for "fossil collecting sites." Two good sites are:


  • Clubs

    Consider joining a local mineral or fossil club. The members will often share localities, and you may expand your opportunities to share the truth of the Creator.

If no fossil information is available for your area, try looking in the following places.

Where to Look for Fossils

  • Sedimentary Rock

    Don't look for fossils in metamorphic rocks, such as are found in the highest part of the Appalachians, or in igneous rocks, such as those associated with volcanoes—you won't find any.

    But almost any sedimentary rock contains fossils—sometimes lots of them. Finer-grained rock is usually better at preserving fossils. Shales are usually the best and sandstones the worst.

    Any place sedimentary rock is being exposed naturally (for example: streambeds, eroding coastlines, mountain cliffs) or artificially (road cuts, quarries, mines) is a good place to search for fossils.

    Remember, though, that although most fossils are found in sedimentary rock, not all sedimentary rock contains fossils.

  • Quarries

    When the gravel in a region is made from crushed rock, a quarry is never far away. Some quarry owners will allow you to collect fossils.

  • Coal Mines, Talus Piles

    Plant fossils are often found in shales associated with coal, so the talus piles of coal mines are often good for plant fossils.

  • Public Sites

    Some public facilities allow fossil collection in specified localities (for example, the Caesars Creek dam spillway in Warren County, Ohio).

Ethics of Fossil Collecting

  • Get Permission

    On private property, be sure to get permission and follow every requirement of the property owner.

    If you are collecting in the right-of-way of a public road, the busier the road is, the more people that are in your fossil-collecting group, and the longer you spend collecting fossils there, the more important it is to secure permission from the appropriate state or county officials.

  • Honor Restrictions

    In most national parks, state parks, and Indian reservations, fossil collection—or even the hammering of rocks—is not permitted.

  • Notify Experts

    BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is open for non-commercial fossil collection, although rare fossils, such as dinosaur fossils, may be confiscated.

    If you discover a very rare fossil, you should notify a paleontologist.

  • Safety in Fossil Collecting

    At road cuts, park in safe locations and stay well off the roadway.

    Along coastlines pay careful attention to the tides.

    When the rocks are soft or crumbly, do not climb steep slopes or cliffs.

    Where cliffs are higher than your head, wear hard hats and do not work above or below other collectors.

    If breaking rocks with a hammer and chisel, use gloves to protect your hands and goggles to protect your eyes.

How to Collect Fossils

  • Be Patient

    Patience is the primary ingredient in successful fossil collecting. Search, search, and keep on searching.

  • Look for Natural Erosion

    The best fossils are often those that have eroded out of the rock naturally, for example, in talus slopes at cliff bases and in sands and gravels of a creek or beach.

  • Use Appropriate Tools

    In thinly layered rocks, it is best to split rocks and examine the flat surfaces. A butter knife, a brick hammer, and a hammer with a wide cold chisel are tools for successively harder layered rocks.

    In rocks that don't break into thin layers, cold chisels of various sizes and tempered steel hammers (geological hammers and sledges) may be required.

  • Practice First

    Beginners should practice before using chisels on the best fossils.

  • Record Your Data

    The more information is connected with a fossil the more useful it is scientifically. Carefully record everything necessary for someone to find exactly where the fossil was found, including:

    Location (GPS longitude and latitude; section/range/township location from a topographic map; and/or road and mile marker)

    Rock data (position of fossil in rock exposure; type of rock; name of geologic formation, if known)

    Photographs and sketches, if necessary

  • Store Fossils and Data Together

    A fossil should be stored with its information. Although zip-lock bags work well for temporary storage, breathable fabric bags with labels of low-acid paper and indelible ink are best for long-term preservation.

Identifying Fossils

  • Lots of fossil books and websites are available, but the more specific a source is for the collection area (e.g. "Fossils of the Caesar Creek Dam"), the more likely you will find an illustration and identification of your particular fossil.
  • The greatest available repository of fossil information is the Paleobiology Database (paleodb.org). It is far from a record of every known fossil, but it is growing daily towards that end. Developed and maintained by professionals, the site is hard to navigate, and perhaps usable by only the most serious of collectors.
  • Natural history museums often contain extensive collections of identified specimens. Serious collectors may obtain permission to identify their fossils by comparison with fossils in these collections.

Enjoy your hunt for traces of catastrophes from earth's past. Hopefully, you'll experience the wonder of holding in your hands the remains of creatures from Noah's time. When you do, imagine the world that creature lived in, cursed but beautiful, and remember that God's judgment is as real as His creativity.

Most of all, remember God's promise to create a new heaven and a new earth where all who accept Jesus Christ as Savior will live with Him, forever free from the curse of sin and death, and thank Him for His great love and mercy.


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