Collecting fossils can be a very rewarding hobby. Not only is it fun to go out and find them, but it’s also a challenge to identify what and how old they are.
Cliff face showing layers of sedimentary rocks. Sea and weather gradually breaks up the rocks, releasing fossils onto local beaches © Alistair Young (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)
Search for fossils in sedimentary rocks like mudstone and limestone. These rocks are the best because fossils form when an animal, plant, or other signs of life such as a dinosaur footprint, becomes buried in sediment, which is usually grains of mud or sand. Over thousands of years layers of sediment build up, eventually turning into a sedimentary rock.
You can usually find fossils anywhere that sedimentary rocks are exposed at the surface. Look along the coast on beaches, in quarries, on farm land, or even in your own garden.
Geological maps will tell you what age and type of rocks are present at the surface. Often fossils are specific to rocks of a particular age, so this will give you an idea about what fossils you might find.
Looking for fossils among the rocks on a beach © Lyme Regis Fossil Festival
The best fossil collecting tools are your eyes. Many fossils are found just lying on the beach, among the stones. Experienced fossil hunters sometimes use a hammer and cold chisels.
The most important thing to remember is your safety. Go with an adult who knows the site well. The best way to start is to go on an organised fossil hunt, so find out if anybody runs fossil hunting trips where you live. Try a local geology society or museum.
When you’re out looking for fossils, be aware of what’s around you and be careful - watch out for falling rocks and places you could slip or fall over. And if you’re on the coast, make sure you don’t get cut off from the land by the sea coming in. You should check tide times before you go out.
Find out who owns the land you are going to visit. You will need to ask their permission first.
Small trilobite from Wales. This fossil is over 440 million years old.
It is very important to only collect what you need. Some fossils are best left where they are for others to enjoy. And some places (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are protected by law, so you can go and look but mustn’t collect from them.
The fossils you collect will probably be linked to where you live as well as what you are most interested in. If you live in Wales, for example, you might be able to collect trilobites and brachiopods but not dinosaurs.
It’s important that you write a label for each fossil you find, saying:
Success! A fossil hunter holds out an ammonite he found © Lyme Regis Fossil Festival
Refer to a good fossil identification guide book. The more books you read, the more of an expert you will become.
The Natural History Museum’s Earth Lab gallery is packed with hundreds of fossils and rocks that you can compare your specimens to. And our Identification and Advisory Service can help you identify your fossils.
Visit your local library or natural history museum, or contact local geology, palaeontology and fossil societies. Look online. The websites listed below will help you find out more about collecting, identifying and preparing fossils.
Enjoy your hobby - you could be hooked for the rest of your life!