Why Are Fossil Hunters Licking Rocks?

By Antonia Čirjak on January 31 2020 in Travel

Dinosaur bones.
Dinosaur bones.

It is a powerful feeling, holding a creature that lived 400 million years ago in your hand. Fossil hunting, or fossil collecting, is a hobby of discovering, describing, and collecting fossilized remains of ancient creatures and plants. It is a mix of field research, treasure hunt, and outdoor adventures not dissimilar to Rockhounding.

Geologists and paleontologists often call their field research “rock licking.” Apart from some practical application (some minerals can be identified via tasting them), it speaks merely for the excitement of the discovery. It is an instant way to clean a small spot on your find to tell what it is you got. Of course, a water spray bottle would be even better, but sometimes you just cannot wait!  

Is Collecting And Keeping Fossils Legal?

Removing any stone, specimen, or living creature from public lands and especially Natural Parks and preservation lands is illegal. This applies to fossils, too. In the United States, you can neither dig out nor own any vertebrate fossils from federal land. Yup, t is illegal to pick up fossils from public land!

In general, when it comes to privately owned lands (not federal land privately leased from the US), and you secure the permission from the landowner (better in writing!), you can collect and keep the fossils. Just mind that, in addition to the Federal rules, each state has its laws and regulations, and every individual area can have its own rules of protection. 

Some lands might clearly state that no exclusions or permits apply, and collecting is prohibited. Some would allow you to pick and take away anything you find for a small fee. A few states, such as Florida, issue special permits.

Is Fossil Hunting By Amateurs Harmful Or Helpful?

Fossil hunters who just pull or excavate fossils from the ground do a great disservice to our learning about the Earth history - and often enough, to themselves. Without a scientific identification and the context, the fossil loses a lot of its value. Rogue excavations used to be compared to destroying the evidence on the crime scene.

On the positive side, responsible fossil hunters can also do a lot of good. More eyes in the field mean more finds and records; amateurs have discovered many valuable specimens that led to scientific breakthroughs. The curiosity driving a lot more people into the fields and digs allows us to cast a wider net in search of the clues of the hidden times. 

What Can I Learn About My Finds? 

If you like to find out more about your finds, you can visit the nearest paleontology faculty or a heritage center. If you collected your fossils legally, they will just record your findings and give them back. 

Learning about the finds can give scientists valuable information about diversity in the area. Be a good scientist, and keep a log of your findings! For the fossil to provide any scientific value, it is essential to know the precise location from which it came. Make a few notes and pictures of the parent rock strata, other fossils found, the tools you used (if any). This will help the scientists to put your find in context and learn about the circumstances of your find’s life and fossilization.

Fossil hunting.
Fossil hunting.

Here is some useful information to record with your finds:

  • Where, when, under what circumstances you found the fossil;
  • How deep was the find;
  • What else was present, especially if you could not remove everything;
  • If it was a skeleton, in what pattern the bones were scattered;
  • Was the skeleton intact; bite marks or damage to the bones;
  • Were there any fossil plants or other animals around;
  • The description of the rocks and sediment which you had to move to get to the bones and where they were embedded.

There is a lot of data about the fossil that will be inevitably lost if they are removed from the ground without a proper record of data. The majority of what the scientists can learn comes not only from the remains themselves but from the surrounding substrate, the scattering pattern, the accompanying pieces. So be a good scientist and save a few pictures and notes about your discoveries.

What Should I Take With Me For Fossil Hunting?

Here is a list of the equipment you might need:

  • Fossil Collecting Permit (in Florida and a few other states);
  • tide times schedule and reminder;
  • containers or bags for your finds;
  • paper to wrap fossils;
  • safety glasses and gloves;
  • phone and camera;
  • rock hammer,
  • small shovel, sifters, magnifying glass, and picks;
  • compass and map; sun protection;
  • first aid kit;
  • water;
  • flashlight and thunder whistle;
  • journal to record the details of the finds.

But Is It Dangerous?

Yes, it can be, same as any outdoor activity. You might be exposed to weather, tides, slippery rocks, mud, dust, uneven ground, eroding cliffs, and caving grounds, risking falls and slides. Dig areas can be unsafe for unprepared people. If you are visiting a beach, pay attention to tides and mudflows, and be aware of what to do if a storm catches you. Always, always plan for tides! They come in much faster than you can imagine, and the spot you are standing now can suddenly become the sea. Maybe you could walk here for 3 hours, but will you be able to swim for 3 hours to get back? Do not go for a “refreshing swim” in unfamiliar waters. 

It is important to tell someone where you are going and when you are planning to return. Notify the local ranger or visitor’s office if you are visiting a park. Take a mobile phone and a GPS device; make sure to protect them from getting wet. There are many area-specific details you need to be aware of, so do your research. Are there poisonous snakes or wild animals? Are there ticks, mosquitos, or other parasites?

Can I Get Rich By Selling Fossils?

The value of a fossil is a tricky question. On the one hand, many of them have substantial scientific importance, especially if they come with a detailed record. On the other hand, they are also emotionally and esthetically attractive or simply rare, just like gemstones or shells. It is understandable. Yet, you may never find anything extraordinary enough to sell for a sufficient cost, or the questionable origin of the find might put all reputable buyers off (this is why it is better to allow scientists to add your finds into their catalogs first). 

For the majority of the hobby fossil hunters, the answer is no. You are not likely to get rich, and this is not something to get into out of the commercial interest: the finds are unlikely to even pay for your tickets. But learning and adventure are guaranteed.

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