Fossils can be viewed in museums but searching for them in the wild can be exciting! Some of the well-known locations are coastal but it isn’t only beaches where fossils can be found.
Different types of fossil collectors have different motivations. Commercial collectors supply the demand of those who cannot collect fossils themselves. Research scientists (and students undertaking fieldwork training) collect and study fossils for increased understanding.
Fossil hunting is also a growing leisure activity, with some planning around fossil hunting trips as part of a family holiday. Others almost stumble across the opportunity. Hunting for and finding a fossil – and potentially being the first human being ever to see it - provides an exciting experience. Some impressive fossil discoveries, such as dinosaurian remains on the Isle of Skye, have been found by those fossil hunting for leisure.
Fossils are mainly found in sedimentary rocks. These rock types are formed due to the build-up of sand, silt and mud in water environments. This leads to fossils frequently being found in areas where sedimentary deposits are exposed due to natural or human actions. For example:
- Coastal areas: sea cliffs and beaches are exposed to coastal forces of weathering and erosion.
- River banks.
- Quarries: the human excavation that takes place (such as in the preparation for construction) can unearth fossils too.
Coastal areas, such as the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, are often the ideal place for responsible fossil collecting as fossils on the beach are destined to be destroyed by the sea if not collected. When searching for fossils on beaches, cliff collapses provide the ideal opportunity. As the sea waves wash the material out to sea, fossils are pulled along the beach waiting to be discovered. So by collecting fossils you may be rescuing something that otherwise wouldn’t be seen by anyone! But before you head out to find the astonishing specimen, it is important to make sure that you are keeping yourself safe and also being a responsible fossil collector.
Keep yourself safe
As with any activity there are risks, so do make sure that you are aware of these when fossil hunting. You can reduce risks by:
- Checking weather conditions and tide times.
- Making sure others at home know your plans.
- Remembering a mobile phone.
- Staying away from the cliff face, rock falls, mudflows, and landslides.
- If you are hammering loose rocks always wear safety glasses.
Collect fossils responsibly
Collecting fossils responsibly can ensure that you, and others, can continue to do so! Responsible fossil collecting could mean that you are involved in key discoveries. To ensure that such discoveries are recorded it is important to be prepared to ask questions about a fossil you find and contact experts if necessary. Remember to only collect loose fossils, rather than hammering or digging cliff faces. This will help to protect the scientific importance of the rock exposures, and in areas subject to coastal erosion it can also prevent erosion speeding up. Although, there is the opportunity to use a chisel to split rocks you have found on the beach to discover fossils within.
There is a potential risk of environmental damage with so many groups and individuals hunting for fossils. But by collecting in a responsible way, in appropriate locations, such dangers can be avoided, ensuring that both education and knowledge gains continue.
There are lots of internet sources regarding the ideal locations for fossil hunting, from Dorset to Devon, Yorkshire to Scotland. The National Trust provide details. Many other local coastal management organisations provide information in relation to their local area.
New fossils are exposed when cliff collapses happen. This takes place during storms with rough seas and at times of high tides and is more common during the winter. But remember that these conditions are dangerous, so do follow the points in the ‘keep yourself safe’ section.
It is important to remember that the best tool for spotting fossils is active eyes! Many excellent and interesting fossils can be found loose amongst stones on the beach.
It is also useful to do a little homework about the types of fossils you may find where you are going to search. This can help you ‘spot’ the fossil when you are on site. At many places around the UK there are also organised fossil walks. These give the opportunity to go out with an expert before trying it alone!