You found a fossil… now what? (all the details!)
Outcrops like these are what people often think of as fossil localities (credit: Lauren Milideo)
Where do people find fossils?
It happens often. Ask any museum curator, and she can tell you countless stories of people coming to the museum with items they found in the backyard or in the garden. People find teeth, and sometimes bones, on the beach or in a stream bed. Sometimes, construction workers or fishermen turn up a huge bone or a tooth during the course of their work. Here is an overview of some
things you can do if you find a nonhuman vertebrate fossil or bone (i.e. the remains of an animal that had a backbone – like a rodent, turtle, fish or a carnivore; invertebrates include clams and scallops, and the laws that govern them, and things like leaves and archaeological artifacts, are different). It should be helpful whether you find an actual, mineralized fossil, or an old bone that’s not yet fossilized (i.e. when I say “fossil” or “bone”, just remember that this applies to both). If you’re looking for a more comprehensive description of how professional paleontologists handle fossils, from discovery to museum display, check this out.
Please keep in mind that this post is just a general overview. It isn’t a comprehensive review of relevant laws – it would be impossible to cover that in a blog post. And I’m only talking about fossils found in the United States. Different countries have different laws regarding fossils, and what’s okay in one place might be illegal in another. When in doubt, leave it alone and report it.
Where was it?
“Where” is always an important question to a paleontologist. Contextual data provides a great deal of information about the fossils and bones we study, often giving them meaning and a place in their world. It’s also important to keep in mind that where is an important legal question: fossils are always fascinating to find and to look at, but not always legal to collect. It depends on where you found it. For example, it is illegal to collect fossils on government or federal land (like national parks). Remember that the natural and fossil resources of these places belong to us all (another way to look at it is, they belong to none of us), and if we are to learn from them, and continue to experience them in the future, they have to remain intact. But, for the same reason, it’s important to document and report what you found. Take photographs and note the location of any fossils you find, and then ask to speak with a ranger or other staff member at the visitors’ center. If there’s no visitor’s center, contact the office or agency responsible for the land you were on. Your information could help to document a site that wasn’t known before – and these simple actions – noticing, leaving alone, and reporting – have led to fascinating and important excavations, such as this one in Badlands National Park.
Providing this information not only helps park staff know if a potential site needs to be studied, but also lets them know when fossil materials have eroded out and become exposed – such locations may be areas that they will need to monitor and protect. Or there may be scientists who will wish to study these fossils. It’s impossible, even for people who spend their lives looking for fossils, to check in every location where they might be. You, too, can be eyes for the scientific community – and every new site contributes to the knowledge that we all share about the history of life on our planet.
Within different states, the laws will vary. States have their own laws about fossil collecting: some states, like Florida, have fossil collecting permits for sale, though there are limitations on where collecting can occur, and the permit comes with the caveat that finds must be reported to the state museum. Other states, including Washington, also allow collecting with permits in certain areas. Your state museum can help you learn what the laws are in your state. In some cases, individual towns have their own laws designating how fossils can be collected on their property. And of course, you have to respect the rights of the property owner, whether it’s an individual person or a corporation (for example, quarries or sand pits can be great places to find fossils, but it’s not always legal or even safe to enter them). So it’s important to know where, exactly, you are (not always easy if you’re in the woods, or in a desert, or on a mountain), and who owns the land.
What is context, and why does it matter?
If the fossil or bone was found on your property, there’s a good chance you found it in the course of gardening or some type of home improvement activity. If you found it in a disturbed context (i.e. where lots of construction or artificial activity has already happened – for example, a suburban neighborhood backyard), it might not be all that old, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be interesting. Context always matters, whether you found a tooth in a stream bed, a femur in a backhoe bucket, or a few unidentified bone fragments in the garden. If you found an isolated bone and it’s already out of the ground, it’s useful to take note of where it was – and remember, paleontologists think in three dimensions. If you dug it up, how deep was it? What does the soil look like? If you can, take a handful of soil and feel it in your fingers. Is it rocky/sandy/rich in clay? Is the soil brown? Black? Reddish? Was there anything else with it, or was it just a bone by itself? If there’s any sediment still clinging to the fossil, don’t clean it off. All of this might be helpful information in figuring out what you’ve found. If you’ve found several bones or even part or all of a skeleton (extremely rare), you should be pretty excited (then again, you should be excited at the isolated bone, too – or at least, I would be!). An intact specimen or any group of bones, especially bones that are still in-situ (in the ground or rock where they were deposited, not yet dug or washed out), can hold really important information, such as which animals might have lived together in the past, or what type of environment they may have occupied when they were alive, or whether this bone represents a local animal or one that washed in from somewhere else. The woods behind your house probably looked pretty different 30,000 years ago, and part of the way that paleontologists reconstruct past environments is by studying the animals that used to live there. A good fishing spot for you today might have been a good grazing spot for mammoths at some point in the past.
Think of it like those forensics shows on TV, where no one is supposed to touch anything until the evidence is photographed and documented: knowing not just what was found, but where and how it was lying there, reveal the story of what actually happened. A fossil site is the same way, except with a longer time scale. When it comes to fossils, where they were found and what they were found with – in other words, their context – can help us learn just as much the bones themselves can. So, if at all possible, it’s best to leave your find in the ground, especially if it’s more than a single bone – at least until you consult with a professional who can help you figure out your next best step. Take lots of photographs, and take some basic notes (see above). If the bone is broken or appears damaged, that’s useful to note, too. And if it’s already dug up – which is sometimes inevitable at construction sites or during other activities – there’s still a lot you can do.
What should I do with the fossil?
It’s a good idea to report what you’ve found to your state museum or local natural history museum – if you’ve collected it (and remember to make sure you know the what’s legal before collecting!) you may even want to donate it so that it can become part of the scientific heritage of your state, and so that others can learn from it, too. Even if you keep it, reporting the find still helps paleontologists keep track of where various extinct animals may have lived, or how the ranges of extant (living) animals have changed over time. And in some cases, particularly if a site is threatened with erosion or if construction is slated to happen, the only chance for paleontologists to determine its scientific meaning, and (if necessary) to salvage the fossils and the information they contain, is for someone to report the find.
What is it?
The next step is to get the fossil identified. There are multiple resources for this purpose. Your state museum’s department of natural resources is an excellent place to start. You can also contact other local museums, as well as colleges and universities in your area. Try to find someone in a department of geology, paleontology, anthropology, or biology. Department websites will usually have contact information for faculty members. You can bring your specimen to them (though I’d make an appointment first – just like you, these folks are busy and not always in the office. They might be teaching, or they might be off on a dig!). But often, you can get some good information just from emailing them the photographs and documentation that you’ve collected. Even if the first person you contact isn’t able to make the identification, she or he will have colleagues in the field, and might be able to direct you to someone who can help. These avenues are probably your best bet to get a definitive answer, and if you’ve left the fossil in the ground, they might be able to help you decide what to do next. Though rare, these types of finds can sometimes turn into a larger paleontological project.
Working on the identification yourself will probably be not only fun but also a great learning experience – as long as the site is not in imminent danger. Your local library may have books about the state’s fossils, often with pictures. If you’re having trouble finding what you need, speak with a librarian. And in the course of your research, you’ll probably learn more than you expected about the paleontological, geological, and cultural history of your area – that’s a reward in itself. Regional amateur fossil collecting or mineral societies frequently have websites with photographs of commonly found fossils for various areas. These organizations, as well as museums, sometimes hold events to which fossils can be brought for identification. Please keep in mind, though, that they’re not going to appraise it for you. Professional and dedicated amateur paleontologists don’t like to place a price tag on fossils because they’re priceless, and because assigning monetary value to fossils encourages looting and illegal trade, which take fossils out of context and remove them from the scientific record. When this happens, it’s no longer possible to learn from these specimens, and we all lose a little bit (or a lot) of knowledge as a result.
What if you find a human bone or some artifacts?
The one big exception to all of this is archaeological sites, and specifically, burials. First of all, it’s important to delineate between paleontological and archaeological sites: paleontology concerns the study of extinct, ancient, or past animals and other organisms. Archaeology is the study of past humans and their activities. Archaeological sites can contain artifacts, including stone, bone, or wooden tools, zooarchaeological materials (including animal bones, which may be evidence of people’s diet), pottery, and other materials that humans made, transported to the site, or otherwise interacted with. Archaeological sites can also contain other evidence of past human activities, including fire pits, the remains of structures, wells, or burials. Depending on the types and ages of the sites, there can be a lot of overlap between paleontology and archaeology, but that’s the essential difference. We’ve looked at purely vertebrate paleontological and bone remains here, but it’s worth remembering that there are lots of other types of fossils or specimens that paleontologists can study (like leaves, pollen, shells, and plankton).
There are separate issues concerning archaeological sites, and the laws about this are more complex than can be covered in this post (but I’m working on a post specifically about burials, which will be up soon). But it’s always illegal to dig up a burial, even if it’s in your own backyard. It is true that graves are sometimes excavated, under specific circumstances and with great care, by professional archaeologists or forensic anthropologists. When this happens, the work is done methodically and respectfully, and for the purpose of scientific research, or because a crime such as murder, genocide, or abuse is suspected, or because the gravesites have been threatened by construction or erosion. And First Nations (or Native Americans) are normally invited to be a part of the decision-making when Native American burials are encountered on federal and tribal lands. But otherwise, it’s just flat-out wrong, and horribly disrespectful, to knowingly disturb a grave. How would you feel if your ancestors were treated this way?
When dealing with archaeological sites and materials, there are ways to treat the site responsibly. Laws regarding archaeological sites vary by state, and the office of your state archaeologist would be a good place to start, if you need more information. But looting is wrong, always. Remember, the past is the story of all of us. Don’t destroy part of it forever by treating any site, archaeological or paleontological, with disrespect.