Digging for fossils is an amazing experience. You get to spend time outdoors, meet new people, and if you’re lucky, find some fossils!
What Are Fossils
But first, what are fossils?
Fossils are the remains or traces of the remains of animals and plants.
The word fossil comes from the Latin word fossus, which means “to dig”, or fossilis, which means “obtained by digging.”
Fossils can be large or small, and they can include bones, shells, feathers, leaves, and more.
How Are Fossils Formed
Not everything fossilizes (in fact, most things don’t fossilize). There’s some luck involved when it comes to fossilizing.
Animals and organisms can fossilize in a few ways. Perhaps the best known one, at least when it comes to dinosaurs, is permineralization.
As we mentioned, fossils can include bones, shells, feathers, leaves, and more. But to keep things simple, and because this is a dinosaur site, we’ll stick to dinosaur fossils.
A very simple example of permineralization is when a dinosaur dies, and gets quickly covered by sediment (such as mud, sand, volcanic ash, or tar). This protects the dinosaur from getting scavenged or from decaying by erosion. Over time, minerals are carried by water into the dinosaur’s tissues—slowly replacing parts of the animal with minerals can last for millions of years.
How to Tell a Fossil is a Fossil
Fossils have a spongy texture on the inside.
This is why some people do the lick test. Here’s how to do it:
- Put the fossil or part of the fossil on your tongue
- If your tongue sticks to it, it’s a fossil
This is because the fossil is porous in nature.
Where to Dig for Fossils
So where can you go if you want to dig for fossils?
We asked our listeners for their fossil dig recommendations, and here they are (thank you)! Keep in mind that most of these programs are only available during certain times of the year. Some programs are also more challenging than others, so make sure to do your research.
Colorado Northwestern Community College
Two week digs, typically in the northwest corner of Colorado.
Elevation Science Institute
Sites are in Montana and include day expeditions and week-long expeditions.
Montana Dinosaur Center
You can book half day digs, full day digs, or exclusive digs.
Morrison Natural History Museum
Three-day programs at the Lance Formation in Wyoming.
Day digs, two-day digs, and week-long digs at various sites in Wyoming.
Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve
A fossil park where you can keep any fossils you find, though they ask for photos of cool specimens.
Sternberg Museum Science Camps
Camps for high school, middle school, and elementary school students.
The University of Chicago
Stones and Bones with the U of Chicago and the Field Museum: A four-week paleontology program for high school students.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Programs include dig for a day, kids dig, and more.
Want to know more about how to dig for fossils? Listen to episode 398 of our podcast, where we talk to Cameron Muskelly about fossil hunting. Hear tips of where to look, what to bring with you, and more.