Want to discover a dinosaur? 5 tips for fossil hunters

Want to find fossils? Amazing finds, from mammoth teeth to dinosaur footprints, are made by ordinary people all the time. Here are five tips to maximize your chances of making a big fossil discovery and help you figure out what to do if you find one.

Know your geology, look for erosion and take lots of pictures of your discoveries

Isadora Barnes, 8, has unearthed a number of trilobite fossils in Conception Bay South, N.L. Knowing the local geology can help you figure out what fossils to look for and what to expect to find. (Submitted photo)

Want to find fossils? Amazing finds, from mammoth teeth to dinosaur footprints, are made by ordinary people all the time and paleontologists say those discoveries are of huge importance to science.

Here are five tips to maximize your chances of making a big fossil discovery and help you figure out what to do if you find one.

1. Get outdoors and look for erosion

Flat fields and forests covered in vegetation are not known for yielding lots of fossils.

"To find these things, you need to have them exposed," says Rich McCrea, curator of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

"Usually, you're looking for an area that's been eroded, like along the tops of a mountain, the side of a hill, gravel pits, road cuts."

The first time Bill Shipp went walking on his new property in Montana looking for fossils, he spotted the cream-coloured object in the middle in this cliff - the end of a dinosaur femur or thigh bone. Eroded areas are a good place to look for fossils. (Joe Small)

Beaches and riverbanks can also be good places to look.

So can outcrops along escarpments, says Victoria Markstrom, field and collection manager at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Manitoba.

And it's a good idea to check back often, as snow and rain generate new erosion each year that could expose new fossils.

The femur turned out to belong to a new species of horned dinosaur. (Martin Lipman/Canadian Museum of Nature)

2. Know the local geology

Whether someplace is a good place to look for fossils depends on the type of fossil.

Gravel pits are good places to look for mammoth remains. Ancient marine sediments are good places to look for marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and terrestrial deposits of the right age are needed to find dinosaur tracks, says McCrea.

This mammoth tusk was found near the town of Taylor, B.C., last year. Gravel pits are a good place to look for mammoth remains. (Rich McCrea/Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre)

Markstrom recommends researching the types of rocks and fossils commonly found in the area you're looking.

For example, the Manitoba Escarpment contains deposits from the Western Interior Seaway — a  sea that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, dividing North America, during the Late Cretaceous epoch around 80 million years ago. That makes it a good place to find fossils of marine animals such as clams, turtles, fish, sharks, squids and crocodiles.

Knowing what to look for can help — a university student and a hunting guide who found different dinosaur trackways in northeastern B.C. both said they found the tracks after hearing other tracks had been found in the region.

3. Get permission, know the laws and stay safe

Unfortunately, laws concerning fossils vary widely from province to province.

In some provinces, such as Saskatchewan and Manitoba, you need a permit to look for and collect fossils, although would-be fossil hunters shouldn't be discouraged about applying for a permit, Markstrom says.

"Regular people could totally do this."

Mark Turner and Daniel Helm walk alongside a dinosaur trackway that the boys found in northeastern B.C. in 2001. In B.C., amateurs can't collect vertebrate fossils or fossil tracks. That requires a research permit. (Rich McCrea/Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre)

In some cases, the collection of certain types of fossils is restricted. In B.C., amateurs can't collect vertebrate skeletons or fossil tracks. That requires a research permit.

In some provinces, including B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, you don't own fossils you collect — the government does and you're just considered to the be the "custodian."

Many provinces also restrict the removal of fossils from the province.

Bear in mind that you always need to have a  landowner's permission to look for fossils on private land.

And always keep safety in mind.

"Don't collect at a road cut along a major highway," says Dave Rudkin, assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

It may be useful to join a fossil club that does organized trips, he suggests, as they may handle a lot of the logistics.

4. Keep your eyes open and believe in yourself

McCrea says it's not necessary to be looking for something specific as long as you're observant and follow up if something catches your eye.

Successful fossil hunters tend to be fairly confident that they found something even if others doubt the find.

On the other hand, McCrea said, "I know a lot of people who doubt themselves and nothing more is done."

5. If you find something extraordinary, take pictures and contact a museum

"Take photos from lots of angles with something for scale," says McCrea.

The Tyrannosaur footprints discovered by hunting guide Aaron Fredlund in northeastern B.C. were each more than 60 centimetres long. When you find something extraordinary, paleontologists recommend taking photos from different angles with something for scale. Your boot will do. (Aaron Fredlund)

Both he and Markstrom discourage people from trying to remove fossils themselves because there is a lot of scientific information at the fossil site that needs to be documented before its removed. For example, a fossil's exact position within the rock layers will reveal its precise age relative to other fossils.

"As soon as you remove the bone or skull or whatever from the ground, you're automatically losing information," McCrea said.

Different fossils require different kinds of excavation, Markstrom adds.

"And, of course, we have all the equipment."

Sometimes, proper excavation can cost tens of thousands of dollars because of the cost of staff, equipment and transporting the fossils out of the back country, McCrea warns.


Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.