You are walking along a creek bed when you see an oddly shaped and colored rock. You pick it up and think “this must be a fossil!” So, you immediately take a few fuzzy photos, email them to a professional paleontologist whose name you found online, and ask them to identify it. Maybe they will also tell how old it is and if it is worth anything! And just to be careful, you don’t tell them where you found it, except that “it was in a creek bed near my house.” I am here to tell you that when the paleontologist responds, they will applaud your curiosity, but inform you that you have not given anywhere near enough information to make any kind of identification. Like when you go to the doctor or auto mechanic, the more information you have ready in advance, the better the interaction. So, as a service to both interested members of the public and my fellow paleontologists, here are some suggestions of what to so before you seek a professional opinion.
1. Carefully record where the specimen came from. Include as detailed a geographic description as possible, at least to the level of county or nearest town. This allows the paleontologist to determine what bedrock is present in the area. It is also proper collection practice; a specimen of unknown geographic origin (“provenance”) is virtually useless.
2. Write a description where the specimen was found. Did you inherit it? Was it loose in a stream bed? Hammered out of a rock formation? Picked out of road gravel? In the middle of a cornfield? It is important to know if the specimen can be directly associated with the bedrock in the area. If possible, photograph the site.
3. Take sharp photographs of the specimen with different lighting and orientations; they should fill the frame. Natural light is best. If possible, take close-ups. Always include a clear scale.
4. This is a great opportunity to learn about fossils and paleontology. Do some background reading on fossils and fossil preservation. Your public library should have some basic books on the subject, such as the classic Golden Guide to Fossils, Smithsonian Handbooks: Fossils, or the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Fossils. You may see your fossil, or something very much like it. Pay special attention to the sections on how fossils are formed.
5. It is also worth learning about objects that look like fossils but are not (“pseudofossils”). Probably the most common of these are concretions. If it looks like a foot, it is probably a concretion.
6. Investigate the geology of your area. Every state has a geological survey which has made maps and published descriptions of local regions; these often contain descriptions of what fossils were found there. Knowing what rocks are present where the fossil was found will help constrain the identification (if your rocks are Ordovician, you cannot have a dinosaur!)
7. Some of the most knowledgeable experts on fossils in an area are the members of local fossil clubs (for a list, see: myFOSSIL). Bring your specimen to a club meeting, there will be people there eager to help you identify your find and share their knowledge. They will also advise on best collection practices and how to interact with professionals. Many fossil clubs, as well as natural history museums, run fossil identification days where you can bring your specimen. If it is something unusual, you will be urged to bring it to a professional’s attention.
8. There are also fossil groups on Facebook, many tied to periods of geologic time. You can share your pictures there to get opinions, although they are not always well-informed.
A few more things. Don’t expect an immediate response to an email or letter. Although interacting with the public is integral to what we do, paleontologists have full time jobs, with many demands on their time. For the same reason, do not show up unannounced. Send an email first, with the information discussed above. If the specimen is of interest, you will be invited to make an appointment.
Be prepared to hear that you’ve found something common, that it’s not a fossil at all, or that it’s not even a natural rock. And please don’t start an argument over this; you asked for a professional opinion, and you received it. If you don’t agree, then feel free to ask elsewhere.
Ethically, a professional paleontologist will not make an appraisal of monetary value. The buying and selling of fossils is a sore subject among my colleagues and we do not want to encourage it. On the other hand, there is chance that the specimen is of scientific interest. In that case, you may be asked to consider donating the fossil to a museum collection. If it is really unusual, it may become the subject of a scientific paper!
It is wonderful that you found a fossil. If you do your homework, you will learn a lot about paleontology and history of life on Earth. And you will get a chance to interact with the community of avocational and professional paleontologists, who will be glad to welcome a new knowledgeable enthusiast.
Note: I would like to thank Kate Bulinski, Karen Koy, Leif Tapanila, Jessica Bazeley Utrup, Asa Asa, Alycia Stigall, Alex Bartholomew, and Rene Lauer for sharing their ideas on this topic.
My new book, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life, can be ordered from Columbia University Press.