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Fossil Collector

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Fossils are our connection to the distant past. They link us to plant and animal life that flourished on Earth millions of years ago.

"Fossils are a gateway to a world where all the continents were in one giant land mass, where giant lizards walked the land, and where sharks that swam the seas were over 27 metres in length," says New Mexico fossil hunter Ray Morris.

Paleontology is the collection, study and identification of these fossils and the attempt to use them to reconstruct the past. Fossil collectors are people who make a hobby of paleontology.

Fossil collecting usually involves plenty of hiking, scaling up and down cliffs, choosing a place to search and digging around for signs of a bone or two. Fossils can be found in many different environments, but usually the best hunting grounds are somewhat isolated. Often collectors will camp on-site.

"You learn to look at the material, to search for certain features -- to spot even the tiniest speck of evidence that somewhere inside the material a fossil is lurking," says Iowa fossil collector Lonny Stark.

If the signs of a fossil exist, a chisel or a pickaxe will be used to uncover or remove the fossil from its rock casing, or matrix. Sometimes collectors end up hauling several pounds of rock on their backs to get the fossils home.

All this hiking, digging and hauling is hard work, so fossil collecting is a good hobby for people who enjoy a physical challenge and don't mind getting dirty.

"To me, the physical experience of fossil collecting is like a challenging sport, and actually hunting for the rocks is like gambling. The two predominant features are a balance of hard work and the luck of the draw," says Stark.

This isn't an expensive hobby, but you do need a few basics to start out:

  • geologist's hammer: $10 to $20
  • backpack: $10 to $30
  • water bottle: $3 to $5
  • cold chisels, for opening rocks: $3 to $5 each
  • crowbar, for separating rock slabs: $5 to $12
  • hard hat, for protection from falling rocks in quarries: $10 to $15
  • books, for identification of fossils: $5 to $50

The value of a fossil is its ability to teach us about history. Since it's difficult to learn much about remains by looking at fossils in isolation, collectors carefully document information about where it came from, its environment and look for clues that would help associate the material with other creatures that lived at the same time.

"Documenting the information about the fossil when you find it can mean the difference between a worthless collection and a great one," says Nova Scotia fossil collector Jean MacFarland.

More and more, amateur paleontologists are educating themselves about the best way to preserve the historical evidence fossils provide. The emphasis of collecting has shifted towards finding quality evidence, rather than a large quantity of fossils.

There are a number of career paths which would be easier to travel with the skills of a fossil collector. The most obviously related field is paleontology -- the professional study of fossils. However, archeology and geology are also very closely related. People in all of these fields may work for universities, government agencies or private consulting or research firms.

Getting Started

This whole fossil collecting thing sounds like fun, but where does one find fossils? It's not like a person can just walk out the back door and start picking up fossils, is it? "Of course not," says MacFarland. "The hardest part is figuring out where to look!"

As with any activity, getting started first means doing some research. It's also helpful to get involved in a group, and then do more research!

Once you have a very general idea of the rules of the paleontological road, your next step is networking with people who have a little experience. A local university geology department or a rock and fossil club would be good places to start.

"Look around and check out your resources," says Ray Morris. "If there are fossils nearby, chances are there are several people already collecting them and they are usually the best sources of knowledge."


American Federation of Mineralogical Societies

Florida Fossil Hunters


Paleontology Resources
Links to collections, exhibits and publications, posted by the University of California, Berkeley

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Fantastic collection of resources from the Department of Paleobiology

How to Become a Paleontologist
Great information about the many areas of paleontology and where to focus your interests

Back to Career Cluster


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