How to go fossil hunting
by Magda Knight
Hunting for fossils has a slightly greater chance of success than hunting the Snark, and as for putting in hours in the wet mud and coming back with nothing? Any fan of the Red Sox knows it's the thrill of participation not victory that counts.
Where to find fossils
You're most likely to find fossils in craggy areas where the rock/ground is exposed and vulnerable, revealing its treasures through erosion. If you're walking through a dry creek bed, washed-out ravine, or in certain cliffy areas and beaches that are known for their fossil yields (like UK's West Dorset and Lyme Regis, known as the Jurassic coast), that's the time to keep your eyes open and your fossil hammer, if you have one, ready.
A great place to find fossils is around the base of crumbling cliffs near the shoreline, especially with cliffs that are quite high, exposed and fragile - the cliffs crumble and so the fossils come to light, particularly in winter. However, standing around the base of a crumbling cliff is the best place to get involved in a landslide - so don't do anything too hectic, and don't stand at the cliff's base too long. The smallest landslip of just a single rock can give you an ugly headache if you happen to be standing underneath it.
If you're combing the shoreline, look for areas where the sea has washed away the clay, if there is any, and for places where smaller stones and shells gather. We'll mostly be looking at West Dorset, but there's no reason you shouldn't do some research and see if the following fossil tips will apply to your own area. There are plenty of sites highlighting worldwide and local fossil locations out there.
Volcanic areas are pretty good - volcanic lava and ash has a tendency to trap all sorts of creatures and preserve their bones well, too. Old volcanic riverbeds often have dark pebbles containing cute little ammonites when you crack them open.
If you don't want to leave fossil hunting to Lady Luck, pick up a rock-hounding book for your area. They'll be full of tips for success in your specific area, and they'll also have information on any fossil hunting Codes for the area, too.
When to find fossils
In wetter climates you're more likely to find fossils around winter - bad weather helps to speed the erosion up and bring any fossils to the surface. If you're fossil hunting on a beach, your best chance is when the tide is going out, as you'll then have the biggest run for your money (check tide timetables if you're planning an excursion in advance).
In West Dorset there's not so much to find in the summer as very little new material arrives on the beaches during the drier months of the year. Between November and April is generally the best time to collect but that is also the time of mud flows and the majority of cliff falls, particularly in late winter and early spring, when special care needs to be taken.
Equipment a fossil hunter may need
A keen eye is the most important thing you'll need, really.
A hat and bullwhip are optional. You're a fossil hunter, not a treasure hunter.
Take a small pocket knife for worming any fossils you like out of their surroundings, or for scratching away at likely rocks.
Non-slip shoes are a must. If you're messing about under crumbling cliffs in the wet, be very prepared.
Take a camera to record finds. It's always nice to expect success!
To have or not to have a fossil hammer? That is the question.
Well... you might want a fossil hammer. It's not needed, but tapping at rocks will be educational and satisfying. If you've got a fossil hammer, you'll definitely want goggles because of shards breaking off. And wearing cyber goggles while you hunt for fossils will make you feel very steampunk, certainly.
However, since you're probably doing this for one-off fun, it's better not to place too much emotional or financial investment in fossil hunting, so save your money. Also, if the rock containing the fossil is so hard that you need to chip it out with a fossil hammer, it is most likely that you won't be able to get the fossil out, and that even if you you will damage the fossil.
Assuming you're fossil hunting on the coast in a cliffy area, the time you spent with your hammer would have been much better spent combing the shoreline. Let the sea do the work for you, and pick up fossils from the beach that the sea has already removed.
Health and safety, oh my
Always tell someone which area you're going to, and when you can be expected back. Seriously. Eroding cliffs and ancient riverbeds don't do what you tell them to. Nature will have its way, and take you with it if you're very unlucky. Cliff falls happen - make sure they happen to other people, and that if they do happen to you, someone will come to your rescue if required.
Take a mobile phone, and if you're being serious rather than happy camper, wrap it in a phone condom so that it has a better chance of still working if you get wet.
Consider how your actions may influence or affect those with less/more experience and remember, not everyone is here to find fossils.
If you're beachcombing for fossils, be aware of tides and mudflows, especially during wet and stormy weather. Check tide times beforehand, either locally or on a website. Tides come in fast. If you've been staring at the ground for three hours and find yourself in a spot it'll take ages to get back to proper land from, and you know the tide will be doing its thing soon, head back. Don't play chicken with the ocean.
Respecting the environment
Some areas, like West Dorset (the Jurassic Coast) have rules. You can continue to keep fossils found on the beach or in material that has already broken away from the cliff, but you must not dig from or chip away at the cliff itself, for safety and other reasons, including the need for scientists to be able to study fossils still 'in situ' in the cliff. You can find out more about the Jurassic Coast code before you set out.
Elsewhere, try to abide by the rules above (if they apply) for good measure, but mainly just go by common sense. Don't do anything so dangerous it will bring a world of rock-induced pain on your head. Don't do anything that's that's plain rude, either to people or the surroundings. But don't be afraid to have a nose around and poke your little pocketknife into this and that.
OK, so I'm fossil hunting. What am I looking for?
If you're in an area that's popular with fossil hunters, check out what the experienced fossil collectors are doing, where they are looking and what sort of rocks they are interested in. If they are breaking rocks, watch how they go about it and you may also be able to learn something from the pieces they leave, for example the types of rock likely to contain fossils. If it seems appropriate, approach them and ask them a few polite questions before heading off and doing your own thing.
In the sorts of areas you'll probably be searching, you'd be more likely to find fishy shelled things than bony dinosaur things. Volcanic riverbeds yield loads of ammonites.
If you're in West Dorset, snuffling around in the shingle might net you small ammonite, belemnite 'guards' (small bullet-shaped things) and maybe even an ichthyosaur vertebra. With time, persistence and luck you might even get your hands on a complete ichthyosaur, like you'd find in a local fossil shop.
I found it! My precious! Is it mine?
In most areas - yes, it is! When it comes to fossil hunting, it's a case of finders keepers. If you've managed to find something that looks like it's really special, take it to your nearest Heritage Centre. If it's considered to be of scientific importance they'll probably want to record it, but then they'll give it back to you. Because it's yours, you lucky little beast.
Sadly, in West Dorset there's a catch, though it only applies to anything you find on the cliffs, not the beach. Apparently, you can't collect fossils from the cliffs without the permission of the landowner. You can keep them - you just can't collect them. Not without permission (although the landowner is sure to give you permission if you do find something on a West Dorset cliff). The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre can provide landowners' contact numbers... so that's alright, then.
There area plenty of Codes around for fossil hunting in particular areas, but it's best if you don't worry too much. If you find something there's clearly a million of, like a beautiful little prehistoric sea creature, just keep it, and maybe tell someone just to be on the safe side.
Will the fossils ever run out?
With coastal areas, they'll run out when the tide stops coming in and out. You're not damaging the environment, just massaging it a little.
If you're in some dry, deserted, canyony area - well, dry land is more finite than the ocean. But it's still not something to feel overly concerned with. These are just bones and shells, and in the millions of years the ammonite in your pocket has been lying around, it's failed to join its brothers and sisters in condensing to form a precious fuel resource. It's pretty, it's one of many, it's a small rock you found in a bunch of other small rocks - you might as well have it.
Here's to you, and your future fossil hunting success!
Fossil hunting locations and forums
More How to guides, Interesting Hobbies and Arts & Crafts
Partially exposed ammonite in Dorset
Fossilised shark teeth
In Lyme Regis, the streets are paved with fossils
@MagdaKnight is an author and the Co-Founder / Editor of Mookychick. Her YA and cross-genre fiction has been published in anthologies and in 2000AD. She likes you already, you know. It must be the jaunty angle of your hat. You can email her and visit her blog.