10 States with Fossil-Hunting Sites for the Public


Fossil hunters have always been a combination of professionals and amateurs, dating back to the 19th century when 12-year-old Mary Anning and her brother Joseph discovered an ichthyosaur skeleton near their home in Dorset, England.

Today, there are a number of well-known fossil beds within a few hours' drive of some of the country's largest cities. If you want to know what you're finding, companies like Mid-Atlantic Fossil and Nature Adventures offer fossil-hunting trips guided by real paleontologists.

You: I found this amazing fossil! What is it?

Paleontologist: That's just a rock.

But if you want to go it alone, we've put together a list of places you can go to look for evidence of prehistoric life. This list is far from exhaustive, and you can use Google to find out if there are good fossil sites near where you live.

1. New Jersey

Big Brook is a fossil site near Freehold, New Jersey, about an hour from New York City. Fossils at this site date to the late Cretaceous period, so they're between 66 and 75 million years old. You'll want a small shovel or trowel and a fossil screen, or a colander with small holes. You can find shark's teeth, Mosasaur teeth, and the teeth of an extinct fish with crazy fangs called an Enchodus.

2. Virginia

Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, is right up the road from Westmoreland State Park. Both sites have beaches along the Potomac River where you can find Miocene era fossils. There are many different kinds of shark teeth, but the big prize is the colossal Megalodon tooth. These monster teeth can be the size of your palm, and come from an extinct giant shark. You can also find fossilized crocodile teeth, dental plates from sting rays, porpoise teeth and whale bones.

3. Ohio

Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville has an abundance of fossils from the Ordovician period. Fossils can be legally collected if you get a permit from the park's visitors' center. You can find a variety of fossils there, including trilobites, brachiopods and gastropods. The state also has a number of other quarries and rivers where marine fossils can be found.

4. Texas

Texas has a number of good fossil sites, like Post Oak Creek in the town of Sherman, where you can find fossilized shells and shark teeth. You can also check out the fossilized dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas.

5. Pennsylvania

There's a fern fossil site off Hancock Road in St. Clair, but it's reportedly hard to find unless you go with someone who knows where it is. The Montour Fossil Pit in Danville, PA is better marked—literally: There's a parking lot with a sign that says "Montour Fossil Pit." This site is Devonian, and you can find trilobites, snails, and brachiopods. You need rock hammers and chisels for this one; the fossils are embedded in shale.

6. California

The town of Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz, has Pliocene era fossils on the beach. You can find snails, clams and sand dollars, especially at low tide. San Francisco's Ocean Beach has Pleistocene-era marine fossils such as sand dollars. Other sites, like Sharktooth Hill near Bakersfield, are controlled by museums or parks and restrict collecting or charge a fee.

7. West Virginia

A quarry near the West Virginia town of Wardensville is a good place to find Devonian-era fossils such as trilobites. It's on Route 55, four miles west of Wardensville. The Fossil Guy can give you directions.

8. Colorado

Popular sites include the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and the nearby Florissant Fossil Quarry. You can't carry anything out of the former, but the latter is a pay-to-dig site where you can find plant, insect, and the occasional bird fossils. The Creede Formation, outside Creede, Colorado, is also a good place to look, but I'll leave you to Google the coordinates for that one.

9. Florida

The Peace River has shark teeth, but also the teeth and bones of large mammals like camels and mastodons. (Mastodons!) You can hunt in the shallows with a snorkel and a sifter, or you can look in the banks on the edges of the river—but keep an eye out for alligators. You need a boat, preferably something small like a canoe or a kayak, so you can get into tight spaces. You don't need a permit to collect shark teeth, but you do need a permit for anything else, so you should probably get one just in case.

Many of Florida's beaches also have good fossils. Manasota Key has shark teeth, including Megalodon, and people have reported finding bison and giant sloth teeth on Jacksonville Beach.

10. Maryland

Purse State Park has a beach along the Potomac River where you can find Paleocene era shark teeth. You can also find beautiful fossil snail shells called Turritella. It's recommended to go at low tide, and the parking lot can be hard to find. Brownie's Beach, in the town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, has Miocene-era shark teeth, including Mako and Megalodon teeth.

Sources: The Fossil Forum, Cathy Young of Mid-Atlantic Fossil and Nature Adventures.

Watch How a Bioluminescence Expert Catches a Giant Squid

Giant squid have been the object of fascination for millennia; they may have even provided the origin for the legendary Nordic sea monsters known as the Kraken. But no one had captured them in their natural environment on video until 2012, when marine biologist and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder snagged the first-ever images off Japan's Ogasawara Islands [PDF]. Widder figured out that previous dives—which tended to bring down a ton of gear and bright lights—were scaring all the creatures away. (Slate compares it to "the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience.")

In this clip from BBC Earth Unplugged, Widder explains how the innovative camera-and-lure combo she devised, known as the Eye-in-the-Sea, finally accomplished the job by using red lights (which most deep-sea creatures can't see) and an electronic jellyfish (called the e-jelly) with a flashy light show just right to lure in predators like Architeuthis dux. "I've tried a bunch of different things over the years to try to be able to talk to the animals," Widder says in the video, "and with the e-jelly, I feel like I'm finally making some progress."

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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