Finding Fossils

Three overlapping images showing people in a shallow river using sifting tools to look through rocks in the river.

Searching for fossils is like traveling back in time to get a peek at Earth's past. You don't have to be a professional paleontologist to collect the remains of ancient life. Anyone can find fossils. All you need is some basic information, a good location, and a lot of patience.

Not Just Any Rock Will Do

If you want to find fossils, knowing what kind of rocks to search in is half the battle. Most fossils "hide out" in sedimentary rock . When tiny bits of rocks and minerals (called sediment) join together over millions of years, they become sedimentary rock. Plants and animals that become sandwiched in this sediment eventually turn into fossils.

Two examples of sedimentary rocks are sandstone and shale.


Sandstone is formed by sand particles. It is often found in deserts, beaches, and other sandy environments.


Shale is formed from particles of mud.

outcrop of exposed rock between trees

Good places to find fossils are outcrops. An outcrop is a place where old rock is exposed by wind and water erosion and by other people's digging.

Do's and Don'ts for Fossil Hunters

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  • Make sure that you plan to dig in a place where it is okay to collect fossils. Check with an adult if you're not sure.
  • Take the following supplies on your fossil hunt:
    • toilet paper for wrapping your fossils
    • plastic food bags for protecting your fossils
    • a backpack for storing the fossils you find
    • a field journal for recording your adventures
    • plenty of water
    • (optional) shovels, screens to sort small loose fossils, geology hammer, chisels, safety goggles
  • Be ready to spend a lot of time looking. Fossil hunting can take lots of time and patience, but what you may find is worth the wait!
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  • Never go fossil-hunting alone.
  • Never climb into dangerous areas.
  • Never touch animals that you think could be poisonous.

Fossils You May Find

There are three main types of fossils you may find. 
* All fossils are shown next to a quarter to show relative size.

(animals without backbones)

fossilized crinoids


about 435 million years old, found in Ohio

brachiopod fossils


about 435 million years old, found in Ohio

belemnite fossil


about 72 million years old, found in New Jersey

trilobite fossil


about 350-375 million years old, found in New York

(animals with backbones)

fossilized dinosaur eggshell

Dinosaur Eggshell

about 90 million years old, found in Argentina

fossilized dolphin teeth

Dolphin Teeth

about 12-20 million years old, found in North Carolina

fossilized whale earbone

Whale Earbone

about 4 million years old, found in California


fern fossil


about 290 million years old, found in Pennsylvania

calamite fossil


about 340 million years old, found in Nova Scotia

Keeping a Field Journal


  • Write notes during the trip or as soon as possible!


  • Always use waterproof ink so that your observations are safe from being changed or erased. 
example of page out of a field journal with various data recorded and drawing of fossil found
Image Credits:

All photos courtesy of AMNH / Carl Mehling; thumbs up and thumbs down icons, courtesy of Alex Muravev / The Noun Project.