Fossil Collecting 101



The Basics of Collecting Fossils

Collecting fossils is a rewarding hobby enjoyed by all types of persons, across the generations. Collectors are found to be an eclectic mix ranging across a wide continuum. At one extreme is the casual hobbyist for which collecting fossils is a means to belong to a community of common interest. Fossil clubs are such communities that can be found in many states, and are often active in teaching and in conducting organized field trips. Other communities are found on the internet in discussion groups and blogs. At the other extreme are very serious collectors, possibly compulsive, possibly reclusive, who seem to live by a motto that “she/he who dies with the most fossils wins”.

Fossil collecting is also an opportunity for parent and child to engage together in an activity that inherently educates each about the natural world, while affording each an intellectual challenge proportional to their age and knowledge. The pre-adolescent fossil collector of today could well become the molecular biologist of the future that helps unravel the mysteries of cancer. The adolescent of today who conjoins with nature while collecting fossils could become an environmental researcher in the future who works to protect the environment or researches global warming. The entirely plausible beneficial outcomes are prodigious for a young person who is forming a vision and dream about who they will become. All that said we are never too old to learn. Regardless of age, learning about science promotes an active mind and a social conscience. Finally, fossils are just plain nice to look at.

After plants and animals die they quickly begin to decay and/or be scavenged by other organisms. It is extremely rare for an animal or plant to be buried before it is consumed, and to be protected in this way that, over millions of years, fossilization occurs. Species that live in water have the best chance of becoming fossilized, since their dead bodies are more quickly covered by sediment when after sinking to the bottom. Sealed away from the usual processes of bacterial decay, these buried corpses are more likely to convert to fossils. While there exists billions and billions and billions of fossils representing the traces of past life on earth, they are only to be found in certain bedding planes where rare conditions superimposed to enable preservation. Fossils are only to be found in sedimentary rocks, including clay, shale, sandstone and limestone, where the deceased plant or animal was covered by products of erosion, and thus protected from scavenging organisms, including microbes (bacteria), and the ravages of the elements.

Fossil collecting has changed markedly in the past few decades. Not so long ago fossil collectors acquired specimens themselves in quarries, road cuts and other outcrops where sedimentary rocks are exposed. Especially the last two decades has seen a dramatic change in how fossils are collected, the result of electrons traveling at the speed of light. Metaphorically, the Internet has largely replaced the quarries and road cuts, the mouse has replaced the rock hammer, and long interstate road trips have been replaced by a transporter that puts the collector in fossil localities around the earth within nanoseconds. Whereas in decades past, fossils were collected through time, sweat and toil, and whereas fossils from distant localities were seldom obtainable, fossils from across geological time from most localities on earth are now available with a few clicks of a mouse.

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