Fossil Finding Fun
February 08, 2017
We’ve partnered with TV presenter and scientist Ben Garrod to give our longest-standing members free tickets to his exciting new tour ‘So you think you know about Dinosaurs?!’ Ben chatted to us about the fun of finding fossils, and explains how you can get involved!
Ever wanted to find a tooth from a giant plant-eating dinosaur or a bone from a prehistoric marine mammal? Well, you don’t need to head to Patagonia or the Gobi Dessert, you should start looking far closer to home. The British Isles is the perfect place to go fossil hunting and there is a good chance you might come back with a fossil. There’s a small chance you might even find a brand new species of dinosaur. An interest in palaeontology (the study of prehistoric life) is not only endlessly exciting but it allows you to explore a whole range of scientific topics, covering biology and geology, chemistry and even physics.
I’ve had fun looking for fossils all across the UK, ever since I was a kid. I remember finding ammonites trapped in small stone nodules, searching for belemnites in rockpools and even finding a lovely sea urchin in the middle of a forest. You never know what you might find and that’s the fun with fossil hunting. In 2009, a lucky four-year-old girl found the fossilised bones of a brand new species of pterosaur on a beach on the Isle of Wight when out on a family stroll and in 2014, two brothers in Wales found the skeleton of a previously undiscovered species of predatory dinosaur, after walking along the beach following a storm!
Fossil hunting is great fun but there are some rules when you go out hunting for a T. rex – some are designed to protect you and some are there to protect the fossils and the landscape. First of all, never go fossil hunting on your own, even if you know the area well. Always take an adult with you. Many sites that are good for fossils are remote and you could easily get into trouble with rising tides, rocks falling from cliffs and getting stuck in mud. It’s always a good idea to take a torch and some brightly-coloured clothes, as well as a mobile phone. If you are going anywhere near cliffs, then think about taking a hard hat, too! Think about your safety when looking for fossils – check tide timetables if you are going looking in bays and coves and never search for fossils at the bottom of cliffs. Stay at least 8 meters away from the base of cliffs. Be careful of steep drops, too, and never go fossil hunting in quarries. Winter is often a good time to look for fossils, because heavy rains and big storms often reveal them, so make sure you keep warm and wrap up.
You will need some equipment to make sure you are collecting properly and that you get all the information you can and to prevent any damage to the fossils on your way home. The most important tool for any fossil hunter is a notebook and pencil. You should record where you found the fossil and when. Also, try and draw the scene – was it near the sea or in a stream bed? Was it next to any other rocks and what did they look like? Writing down notes and making detailed sketches will not only help you remember but will make you a better scientist. A camera is also a good way of recording lots of information for you to keep a track of all your finds. Make sure you take some newspaper, so that you can wrap your fossil up and prevent damage. A magnifying glass is a handy tool, to make sure you’re looking at an actual fossil. Also, if you fancy breaking some rocks apart to see if there are fossils within, then a little hammer and chisel might be a good idea (and you’d need safety glasses too, remember).
It’s not just you that needs looking after though . . . if you go out fossil hunting, you need to be a responsible collector. Firstly, if you find something that you know is too big or too fragile to remover yourself, then you might want to give your local museum a call. The UK has hundreds of natural history museum collections and there are countless museum curators who are friendly and very knowledgeable and would be interested if you found something interesting (maybe don’t report every ammonite or belemnite you find, though!). You should never use a hammer and chisel to ‘hack away’ at fossils embedded in larger slabs of rock . . . this could very easily damage the fossils and the surrounding areas. Instead, stick with what you can find loose and only use a hammer on little nodules of rock you find. Remember that some areas are protected, so always check the details of an area before you go collecting and if you happen to find a beach with thousands and thousands of fossils, you don’t need ALL of them . . . collecting should always be done responsibly and it’s nice take only one or two fossils, otherwise there would be none left for anyone else. Keep as much information as possible about each fossil and if you do come across anything especially important or weird, you might even consider donating it to a museum, where the fossils can be properly studied and researched.
Palaeontology is a fun and engaging way to really look at the world around you, and studying fossils is a brilliant way to get into an exciting and inspiring part of science. If you think about it, you are learning very real scientific skills and at the end of the day, you might actually find a dinosaur on your local beach!
If, like Ben, you or your family are interested in fossils and dinosaurs, then why not see a ‘So you think you know about Dinosaurs?’ show at a theatre near you?
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