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Lane Weinberg on Fossil Hunting for Beginners: A Guide

28th September 2020 Print

Thinking of getting into fossil hunting? You’ve come to the right place. Hunting for fossils is one of the most exciting hobbies one can have. Whether you’ve been studying paleontology or just have a fascination with dinosaurs or history, fossil hunting is for you. 

Lane Weinberg is the owner and primary photographer of Thisleftlane Imagery and an avid fossil hunter. He is based in Wilbraham, MA, and has been fossil hunting for as long as he can remember. Mr. Weinberg provides his insight into fossil hunting for beginners. 

Step One: Research

Before beginning your search, you first need to do some research on fossils to figure out what type you even want to collect. Weinberg asserts that few people realize that all living things can leave behind fossils, it isn’t just dinosaur remains. Although gigantic dinosaur bones can be discovered, many fossils are much smaller than that, such as shark teeth, skin impressions, and even eggshells. 

The fossils you’re most likely to find largely depend on the geographic area in which you’re searching. If this is your first fossil hunt, then you’re probably not going to travel very far for it. Thus, it’s best to begin your research with what types of fossils can be found in your local area. Geography is a great way to narrow down your research, as otherwise you could spend years looking up information about fossils. If you’re having trouble finding the information you need on the internet, consider contacting a local university or museum and speaking to an expert on the subject. They will likely have some insight into the fossils commonly found in your region. 

Lastly, Lane Weinberg asserts that part of your research should include checking the laws around fossil hunting and collecting in the area in which you plan on hunting. Some areas will allow you to take a fossil home with you while others expressly forbid it. Be sure to know which side the state or township in which you’re hunting falls on.

Step Two: Location

As mentioned above, at first you may prefer not to travel too far when it comes to hunting fossils. Luckily, that shouldn’t be a problem as technically, fossils can be found anywhere that certain types of rocks are exposed. In addition, there are a huge number of official fossil hunting sites in the United States (both Mental Floss and CNN Travel have lists of the best public fossil hunting sites in the US). 

In your research from step one, you probably started to understand what makes certain sites better than others for fossil hunting. Lane Weinberg asserts that it all comes down to the type of rock. Living things can only become fossils if the matter is buried quickly. Decomposition, scavengers, and erosion are all common culprits that prevent organic matter from fossilizing. However, there are certain types of rocks that are quicker at covering and burying organic matter than others. Shale and sedimentary rock are two of the best types, so keep your eyes peeled for those. 

Step Three: Tools

If you’re going to hunt fossils, you’re going to need a tool kit. Lane Weinberg claims that there are several must-have tools and equipment when fossil hunting. A paleontologist’s kit typically includes the necessary gear to not only search for and collect fossils, but also to transport them. The tools for collecting and transporting fossils may not be necessary for you depending on the laws in your area. However, there are still several tools that one needs to simply search for fossils in the first place. 

Lane Weinberg never leaves on a fossil hunting trip without the following: sturdy shoes that will provide support on the terrain you’re hunting on, a quality backpack with enough room to fit all gear, a map of the area, a water bottle to stay hydrated, a cell phone, both for safety and photographic documentation, and a notebook for sketches and notes. These are the best tools if all you are doing is searching for fossils. If you plan on collecting fossils, then you will also need tissues to wrap the delicate fossils in, Ziploc bags to place the tissue-wrapped fossils inside, a marker to label the bag with the fossil’s unique information, goggles, gloves, a geological hammer, a drilling hammer, and a chisel.

Step Four: Plan

Once you’ve put together a fossil hunting toolkit, it’s time to plan your first fossil hunting trip. Lane Weinberg says that his first time hunting fossils is an experience he will never forget. However, there are a few things he wished he’d known first. For example, plan ahead by choosing a dig site and researching any rules, restrictions, and laws at that dig site (such as if you’re allowed to take fossils home or not). Second, if you’re just going on a casual hunt, which you likely will be as this is your first time, plan to spend between two and four hours at the site. Once you get more comfortable and have a better idea of what you’re looking for, fossil hunting trips can last up to eight hours. Further, if the dig site is larger, you will definitely want to bring a map or GPS with you. As with any outdoor activity, check the weather in advance. If you live in a hot climate, it’s best to start your hunt as early as possible to avoid the worst of the heat. In addition, when possible, the best time to plan a fossil hunting trip is after a large storm. Serious storms will often expose new layers of rock, leading to new possibilities for fossil hunters.

Step Five: Identify

Now that you’ve made it to the fossil hunting site, the final step is to be able to identify the fossils that you find. Making your first fossil discovery is so exciting, shares Lane Weinberg, but being able to identify it isn't always easy. There are a few different ways you can go about identifying it. A quick Google search can sometimes prove useful and there are also many extensive guide books out there. There is also an app for fossil identification called myFOSSIL, where you can share a photo of the fossil you’ve found and be connected with others who have found similar ones. If you still can’t figure it out, take several photos from all angles and submit it to the Paleontological Society’s website. They offer feedback on fossil findings and should be able to help you.