How to become an Amateur Paleontologist

Imagine hitting a rock with a hammer and revealing an impression of an animal or plant that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and being the first human to ever see it. Besides experiencing the excitement that comes with your discovery, if the fossil is proved to be that of an entirely new species, it could be named after you!

Becoming an amateur paleontologist does not require a college degree. At its simplest, it requires joining a group of other amateur paleontologists. At a more difficult level, it might require some formal education, and some research.

Ordinarily, many years of education are required for a person to become a professional paleontologist. Typically, he becomes a geologist or a zoologist. He often specializes in the study of sedimentary rocks, or rocks that are created as a result of weathering, environmental, erosional, or evaporative processes. He specializes in sedimentary rocks because these are the types of rocks where fossils, or traces of once living animals or plants, are found. Note that igneous rocks never contain fossils. They are rocks that are created by great heat above ground by volcanic means, or beneath ground as magma. Metamorphic rocks are either igneous or sedimentary rocks that have had their original mineral composition altered through pressure, heat, or chemical processes. Typically, any fossil remains are obliterated in sedimentary rocks through metamorphism, although mild stretching, bending, or heating of sedimentary rocks can oddly distort fossils without destroying them.

Contrary to what most people think, studying fossils is much more than just hunting for dinosaurs. Branches of paleontology include Vertebrate and Invertebrate Paleontology, Palynology, Paleobotany, Micro-Invertebrate Paleontology, Palaeoecology, Paleoscatology, and Taphonomy.

There are ways the amateur can begin collecting fossils though, without the formal training required for a professional paleontologist. The first method is the easiest and requires the least amount of research.

A brief search of the Internet will often reveal the existence of local clubs you can join for a day on a scheduled field trip to find fossils. On your favorite Internet search engine, enter a search string such as, “fossil collecting clubs in (enter your state).” Links will surely appear that can take you to a geologic group or organization’s website. Most groups encompass all aspects of geology and are also interested in collecting minerals. They usually want you to join their group as a member, but often they will allow you to accompany them for a day for free, or at minimal charge so you can decide if you want to become involved in any further activity.

Without investing in specialized tools, you will probably want to bring any kind of hammer, a chisel, and newspaper for wrapping specimens in, safety goggles, and a bag or bucket to use for toting your specimens home.

For the novice, accompanying a group is perhaps the recommended route to take. Members can teach you a lot about rocks, fossils, and the techniques involved in finding them. Some organized trips require a hike to the site where the fossils are located and then you typically spend the whole day chipping and cracking open rocks looking for fossils.

The second way to become an amateur paleontologist requires more of a solo effort.
You can forgo the clubs, and by using the Internet search engine again, replace “clubs” in your search string with “sites.” Links will appear to websites that can guide you to popular collecting sites you can visit at your leisure. However, without knowing what you are looking for and how to collect, a trip can result in frustration and failure.

A more adventurous approach requires that you do some learning first.

To begin, you should have some knowledge of geology. You could try to gain it searching on the Internet. A noble effort, but you might do better to take a class in Introductory Geology at a local college. This creates a foundation for understanding the necessary elements of geology, such as mineral and rock identification, what type of sedimentary rocks are likely to contain fossils, basic stratigraphy, correlation, environments of sediment deposition, and field techniques. It is amazing how much you can learn about geology in an introductory class.

In a class, you might also learn about geologic publications and geologic maps, and how to interpret them. This is important because after you have gotten some formal education, and have a better idea of what you are looking for, you can start doing some serious research.

Serious research involves acquiring geologic publications specific to the types of sedimentary rocks that can be found in your area. The publications also include identification guides for the fossils that can be found in those rocks. You will also need a geologic map for the area you intend to search. The geologic map is colorful and shows an outline of your state with all of the known surface rock lithologies indicated by different colors. The different colors correspond to a chart on the side of the map that tells you the age of the different surface rocks, what they are composed of, and what type of rocks they are. If sedimentary rocks of the type that contain fossils are found in the chart, then you only need to find the rock type’s location on the map. At that location on the ground, there is a good chance you might find fossils.

Once you have found areas where you think fossils might be, try to plot their locations using either a road map or United States Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle, or quad maps. You should know that just because you find a location that might likely yield fossils, you can’t just march onto private property to look for them, you must ask permission before trespassing, and inform the owner of your intention to collect fossils.

The best places to look are road cuts where a road has cut through a hill and exposed layers of sedimentary rock. Many times USGS quad maps show locations of quarries, also good places to look if sedimentary rocks are mined there, but again, permission must be received prior to entering. Creek beds and river beds are other good places to look for fossils since they often wash out of sediments farther upstream, but again, it is best to only do this where the water crosses a road, or where you have previously gained permission. Never collect in protected areas such as state or national parks or preserves unless it is clear that you are allowed to do so. If you should ever accidentally find a fossil in such a place, it is traditional to offer it to the rangers with details on how the fossil was found.

Tools should include those mentioned before, but a geologist’s chipping hammer should replace “any kind of hammer.” You should also have fossil identification books and guides, a good first aid kit, and a magnifying loupe. Good prior research will also prepare you for what kind of fossils you might expect to find. Geologic publications and maps can sometimes be obtained from your state geological survey office, or from the USGS. Many are out of print, but can be found on the Internet as portable document format (PDF) files.

Besides the exercise and general satisfaction that can be derived from collecting fossils, once you become good at finding beautiful specimens, you can sell them at gem, mineral, and fossil shows and exhibitions, or on Ebay to other collectors. In addition, fossil collecting, or amateur paleontology, is a great way to spend the day with your family. It is educational, healthy for all, and might lead your children to a future career as a professional paleontologist.

As an amateur in the field of paleontology, don’t think your potential finds might be any less significant in importance than any made by a professional paleontologist. In fact, paleontologists welcome the efforts of amateurs, who many times in the past, have made discoveries that have contributed greatly to paleontology. In addition, paleontologists can’t possibly explore all of the fossil sites that exist, or wait to be discovered, all around the world. They don’t have time, and there aren’t enough paleontologists available.

Finally, if a fossil you find has never been classified taxonomically as a new species, and it becomes accepted by the scientific community, most often the fossil will be named after you. The honor will live on in the world long after you have departed it. In addition, your discovery will have spared professional paleontologists years of painstaking fieldwork, and depending on the importance of your find to the scientific community, it might help plug gaps in the evolutionary record of life.

Not a bad accomplishment for an amateur!

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