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How to Find Fossils

Updated on July 19, 2012

Extracting Fossils from Stone

Stand rocks on end and use a hammer and chisel to create wafer-thin layers. Eventually, the fossil will be free of the surrounding stone.
Stand rocks on end and use a hammer and chisel to create wafer-thin layers. Eventually, the fossil will be free of the surrounding stone. | Source

What Are Fossils?

Fossils are the mineralized remains of ancient animals, insects, or plants. They are not the actual bones of the creature, as bones are living tissue and will rot away over time. When people refer to “dinosaur bones,” they really mean the fossilized bones of a dinosaur (though vascular tissue has been found inside some fossils). Bones and shells which undergo fossilization have had minerals seep into the pores – the bones have essentially turned to stone. Very few animals or plants become fossils, as the conditions have to be just right for a fossil to form. A creature must die and become covered in sediment (mud), and not completely rot away before the fossilization process occurs.

How Fossils are Formed (Video)

How do Fossils Form?

380 million years ago, a small crustacean called a trilobite was swimming in a warm, shallow ocean near the equator. The animal died, and fell to the bottom of the sea. Mud and silt slowly accumulated over the animal, and as the layers of sediment increased, pressure was placed onto the animal’s exoskeleton. Minerals from the water were forced into the pores of the skeleton by the pressure, until the bone tissue was entirely replaced with minerals – the animal’s exoskeleton was effectively turned into stone.

Fossils need three basic elements to form: sediment, minerals (typically found in water), and pressure. A great deal of luck is also needed – the great majority of deceased animals and plants simply rot away and do not become fossils.

Types of Fossils

Trace fossils are evidence of an animal’s existence. Footprints or an impression of a shell in a rock are examples of trace fossils. Trace fossils give scientists a lot of information about the way an animal moved and lived. By looking at a dinosaur’s footprints, the speed of the animal, its social behavior, and it’s mode of locomotion may be deduced.

Plant fossils are all around us. Coal is a fossil fuel – coal is the fossilized remains of land dwelling plants. Some coal still bears the imprint (trace fossils) of leave patterns. Methane and one source of natural gas (type III kerogen) are also fossil fuels derived from plants. An impressive example of fossilized plants lies in Arizona – the Petrified Forest contains the remains of ancient trees, forever preserved in the form of stone on the desert floor.

Oceanic fossils can be found in surprising places. Upstate New York has a large deposit of fossilized shells and fish. The large number of shells found in the shale of canyon walls is explained by ancient geography: this area of the United States was located near the equator and was submerged by a shallow sea in the Devonian era.

Dinosaur Fossils are found throughout the world, and are fascinating finds. The hilly area near the Rocky Mountains in the United States has a high density of dinosaur "bones." The badlands of Montana and Wyoming have had a lot of weathering, allowing sediment from the Cretaceous Period to become exposed.

Geologic Eras and Types of Fossils

Geologic Era
Trilobites, worms, sponges, brachiopods.
Massive explosion in biodiversity in this era.
Corals, trilobites, jawed fishes, ferns, and early amphibians.
Continent of "Euramerica" existed; early formation of the Applachian Mountains.
Large trees, winged insects, amphibians, and first reptiles.
Highest atmospheric oxygen levels in Earth's history.
Archosaurs, first mammals, ammonoids, and ichthyosaurs.
The Andean Mountains begin to form.
Dinosaurs, small mammals, conifers, and cycads.
Carbon dioxide 4-5x higher than today's levels.
New typs of dinosaurs (Tyrannosaurus Rex, e.g.), flowering plants, sharks, and primitive birds.
Rocky mountains begin to form, CO2 concentration reaches present-day levels.
Extinction of the dinosaurs, modern plants appear, large mammals appear.
Asia collides with India, creating the Himalayas.
A brief summary of fossils produced by some geologic eras.

Brachiopod Fossil

This brachiopod fossil was found in shale lining a creek bed.
This brachiopod fossil was found in shale lining a creek bed. | Source

Tips for Removing Fossils from a Rock

Once fossils have been identified inside a piece of sedimentary rock, the next step involves removing them from the rock. Sometimes this is an easy process, and other times it is quite tricky. Some fossils are very sturdy (such as ancient sea corals or brachiopods), and other times they are quite fragile (like trilobites). The best tools for removing fossils from the surrounding rock are:

· A hammer

· A chisel

· A stiff paintbrush

· Eye protection

Stand the slab of rock on end, using another rock as a support. Gently tap the end of the rock with the hammer and chisel, until the layers separate. Many times, the fossil will pop out of the rock when this happens. Other times, the chiseling and hammering will require more time to remove the rocky layers from around the fossil.

Take care with fragile fossils – sometimes it is not possible to completely remove the rock from the edges of the fossil. Many people have tried to get that one extra piece of stone away from the edge of a trilobite fossil, just to crack the entire fossil and ruin it.

Sturdy shoes and eye protection are also good ideas for fossil hunting trips. Pieces of shale or limestone can go flying once they are struck with a hammer!

Preserving Delicate Fossils

Some fossils, such as trilobites, are extremely fragile. A simple protective solution of white glue (such as Elmer's glue) and water can be mixed in equal proportions. Simply paint the outside of the fossil with the glue/water mixture and allow it to dry. This will give the fossil a shiny appearance, and the glue will form a protective layer over the delicate exoskeleton.

Penn Dixie in Hamburg, NY

Penn-Dixie is a fossil dig site in Western New York: Devonian Era marine fossils are found in this site.
Penn-Dixie is a fossil dig site in Western New York: Devonian Era marine fossils are found in this site. | Source

Where to Find Fossils

Most fossils are found in sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock includes shale, limestone, and sandstone, among others. Sedimentary rock is typically found in layers and is fragile – it will break apart fairly easily and may sometimes be scratched by a fingernail.

Look carefully along canyon walls and near stream beds – the walls may contain sedimentary rock, and many fossils may be hidden within the layers. Gently pull out a piece of stone and inspect it for shells, leaf prints, or other fossilized remains.

Some areas of the world have a high concentration of fossils. Some of the locations are surprising – the Himalayas have a high concentration of fossils. Fossils can be found in every country, and the United States is filled with fossil beds. Every state in the union has fossils that can be found – some have dedicated dig sites that allow visitors to chip away their own fossils and keep what they find.

Locations of the Best Fossil Dig Sites in the United States

2072 S Muddy String Rd, Thayne, WY 83127:
S Muddy String Rd, Thayne, WY 83127, USA

get directions

The fossil safari at Warfeild Fossil Quarry in Thayne, Wyoming, is a great dig site for families.

350 East 300 South, Delta, Utah 84624:
350 E 300 S, Delta, UT 84624, USA

get directions

U-Dig fossils in Utah has a rich deposit of trilobites.

4050 North Street, Blasdell, NY 14219:
4050 North St, Buffalo, NY 14219, USA

get directions

Penn-Dixie was once the site of a cement company. This fossil dig site has an incredibly rich bed of Devonian era fossils.

213 Lincoln Avenue Lehigh Acres, FL 33936:
213 Lincoln Ave, Lehigh Acres, FL 33936, USA

get directions

Fossil Expeditions in Florida features fossils from sharks, mammals, and reptiles. Kayak excursions are available.

2375 Indian Creek Road, Mineral Wells, Texas:
2375 Indian Creek Rd, Mineral Wells, TX 76067, USA

get directions

Mineral Wells is a free park where fossil hunters may keep what they find. Brachiopods, trilobites, and crinoids may be found here.


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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Oh, wow, CassyLu! I wish I could find geodes in Western NY - my kids would be ecstatic. We have loads of fossils from the Devonian era in our neck of the woods - mostly bivalves (cephalopods) and trilobites. We always take a look when we see shale cliff sides!

    • CassyLu1981 profile image


      6 years ago from Spring Lake, NC

      We find fossils all the time :) We love walking along creek beds (espically when they are super low with water). In Iowa we actually found some Geodes which was really cool! Great hub, voted up, useful and shared!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      There are a lot of fossil dig sites around the country, teaches - and you can also simply look alongside any creek lined with sedimentary rock. The brachiopod in the picture was found in a gorge near our house - not an official "dig site," but there is a ton of shale, and the shale is loaded with these fossils!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      Interesting read, Leah. I see that there is a location in our area for fossils. I remember trying to find some when I was a kid. I did find a couple that were quite detailed. Voted up.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Hyphenbird - I love taking my boys on different "adventures" to learn about things. I have thought about getting my teaching credentials, but the opportunity for teaching jobs is non-existent in our area. My main goal is to prevent the "summer slide" that happens when kids are out of school for the summer, so we are compiling a book of all our adventures as a big summer project.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      You are just the best and most knowledgeable mom I can think of. Really, you should be teaching. This Hub is so cool.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, Emma! There are so many different types of fossils. Our local fossil beds contain marine fossils - shells, fish, and corals - but other locations (like the badlands of Montana) have dinosaurs. Fossil hunting is fun!

    • Emma Harvey profile image

      Emma Kisby 

      6 years ago from Berkshire, UK

      This is a really interesting hub Leah. I love the way you explained the different types of fossil and where they can be found.

      Up and shared!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      There are a lot of digging sites around the country - I only included a few on the map, but there are dig sites in nearly every state! Thanks for your comment, Karine - we love taking "field trips" to find fossils!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, Robert! We love going on fossil digs. We live fairly close to Penn Dixie, and I really love the fact that they let you keep whatever you find (no matter how rare). They do request the ability to take photographs of rare specimens, but you keep what you find!

    • Karine Gordineer profile image

      Karine Gordineer 

      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      Hi Leah....what a cool article! I like your writing style and definitely gained a better understanding of how fossils are formed. The inclusion of a few digging sites was also useful and as was the video. I voted up!

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 

      6 years ago from California

      This is an incredibly organized hub! Wow. I love the use of maps, diagrams, your personal pictures. You have inspired me indeed. I will have to work on an article with such detail is this in no time at all. Thanks for sharing and I may have to go on a dig of my own sometime soon.


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