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Fossil Finders

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The Science

How to Identify your Fossils

This fossil key will help you identify Devonian aged fossils.

Where to find your own fossils

When you watch scientific digs on television, scientists are always traveling to exotic and far-off places to collect fossils. But it is not always necessary to go far away to find fossils. In some cases, like in central New York, fossils can be collected right in people’s backyards! This page explains why there are marine fossils in New York State, where they can be collected by individuals and classes, and provides some tips on how and where to collect. Lastly, we’ve listed a few organizations that individuals can contact for public digs and guided field excursions. Happy fossiling!

Why we have fossils in NYS:
Today central New York is over 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, but incredibly, we find evidence of fossilized marine organisms in the rocks of this area. The only water nearby is freshwater. How can this be? By studying the rocks exposed in central New York and the fossilized organisms preserved in them scientists have reconstructed how New York looked during the Devonian Period (416 to 354 million years ago) when the sediments that formed these rocks were deposited. Much of this reconstruction has been done by comparing modern organisms and sediments to the fossilized organisms found in the rocks and the sediments that make up the rocks. Through their reconstructions scientists have determined that much of New York was covered in a shallow sea, and the state was located close to the equator. Another line of evidence for the existence of a warm shallow sea in New York during the past are thick salt deposits that lie below the fossiliferous Devonian rocks. These salt deposits are older than the Devonian rocks (Silurian in age, 443-416 million years ago) and formed as the shallow sea periodically evaporated leaving salt deposits behind.

Because a lot of things have happened in the 380 million years since the fossilized organisms were living in New York, fossils have not been preserved everywhere. Most notably, the last two million years have been riddled with ice ages where glaciers repeatedly moved south, from Canada, scraping the surface of New York and many other northern states. This process has removed countless tons of rock, creating features like the gorges near Ithaca, the Finger Lakes, and the Great Lakes. Glaciers also deposited rock and sediment from other areas as they retreated north when climate warmed. Events like these have formed New York’s topography as it is today, and make certain areas perfect for collecting fossils, and others barren.

Where to Collect Fossils:
In central New York, where the fossils studied in the Fossil Finders Project were collected, anywhere you see rock cropping out in a yard or along a roadside, is likely a great place to stop and look for fossils! In almost every state, there is an opportunity to find different types of fossils. If you’re not near central New York, feel free to get in contact with your state’s Geological Survey and discuss with them possible places to collect near you!

While geologists and paleontologists know there is no substitute for actually getting outside and collecting your own fossils, we recommend that you observe caution when making the decision to go fossil collecting with family, friends, or your class. Below is our recommendation of things to consider before heading out into the field.

Collecting Fossils in New York:
Your interest in the Fossil Finders Project may inspire you to go into the field and collect your own specimens. You may also want to give your students the same experiences.

Planning Your Fossil Collecting Field Trip (©2006, Geological Survey of Alabama)
Fossils are collected outside, sometimes in wild areas, and safety should be a major concern when you are out in the field. With careful planning, sufficient numbers of chaperones, and restriction of visits to the safest areas, fossil collecting trips can be fun for all. Dangers may include poison ivy, snakes, ticks, stinging insects, black widow spiders, toxic plants, holes and loose rocks, broken glass, and barbed wire. It is best if you can be flexible about when you go to the field, so you can choose the most pleasant days. In the summertime, heat exhaustion is a very real danger. Everyone should have a hat and plenty of liquids to drink. A quart per person is a good minimum unless your time in the sun will be very short. Summer field trips should start early and end early to avoid the heat.

Finding a Fossil Collecting Location
Fossils are relatively common in Central New York but finding good spots to take a group collecting is not. Most good exposures where many fossil hunters in this region collect are quarries. Unfortunately most quarries have strict rules regulating access to the quarry and only allow adults to have access to the sites. Many other locations are on private property. These sites can be excellent but gaining permission from the landowner can be difficult. If you know of a location on private land make sure to get permission from the landowner before visiting the site.

Many of the local state parks have gorges with great exposures of shale and Devonian fossils. While it may be tempting to collect fossils in these parks it is ILLEGAL to collect fossils in state and national parks. If you want to take your students to a local state park to look for fossils encourage them to make a digital collection of the fossils by photographing the fossils they find and leaving them in place in the park. If digital cameras are not available you can have the students find, identify, measure and draw the fossils in situ at the park and take the data back to school for analysis.

Below you can find contact information for several sites in New York that do allow school groups to visit and collect as well as contact information for paleontological groups that may be able to help you find a fossil collecting locality near your school.

Road Cuts:
Many fossil-collecting sites are road cuts. Road cuts are highly accessible, easy to find, and numerous, but they also can be dangerous. Think carefully before taking young children to any road cut. If you do take students to a road cut, you will need more chaperones per child than on other kinds of field trips. You will also need to find a suitable place to park buses, cars, etc., that is near the road cut and allows students to safely exit the vehicle.

Road cuts may have narrow shoulders that keep students close to the road. In such cases, traffic will be a problem. Even where shoulders and ditches are wide, the usual dangers from heat, etc., may be encountered at road cuts.

To find a road cut near you consult a local paleontological group, geological Quadrangle Map, or just drive around local roads and highways looking for units of rocks exposed near the shoulder. Route 20 is an excellent source of Middle Devonian ‘Fossil Finders’ aged fossils in the NY area. Quadrangle maps can be purchased from the U.S. Geological Survey and contain information on roads aand topography that can help you accessible places where rocks might be exposed. Consult a geologically inclined organization for help reading topographic geological maps.

Site Conservation (©2006 Geological Survey of Alabama)
In collecting fossils we must always think of preserving the site for others. Readily accessible outcrops containing attractive fossils are visited often. These visitors may be children, teachers with their classes, commercial fossil dealers, amateur fossil collectors, or paleontologists. Collect sparingly, and do not denude or damage an outcrop so that others cannot use it. Be especially careful not to step on the fossils that lie scattered on an outcrop. Outcrops may take years to return to their pristine state after suffering such damage.

If you find anything unusual, such as a vertebrate bone or skull, contact the nearest natural history museum or university geology department, or the Geological Survey of New York, to find out if the specimen is valuable for scientific study. Museum and university geologists can tell you which areas are currently being studied and should not be visited by large groups, and which areas can be visited by students without hindering research. In many cases you can cooperate with scientists by locating rare finds that can be studied or displayed in museums. If you find a rare specimen and are willing to lend it to a museum, you will be given full credit in the display or record.

List of Helpful Organizations
Contact Organizations in New York State
New York State Geological Association

This organization has a published set of guidebooks available online and for purchase related to the geological history of many regions in NYS. While not all of the field trips listed in the guidebook will be pertinent to fossil collecting, those that are have excellent road maps to sites, faunal lists, and stratigraphic explanations of sites. You may also wish to attend one of their annual meetings, where the fieldtrips in the guidebooks are run by professional scientists.

Places to take Students:
Langheinrich Fossil Preserve, Inc.
290 Brewer Road
Ilion, New York 13357

The site — near the town of Ilion — contains well-preserved exposures of the 435-million-year-old Fiddler's Green Formation (Silurian period). This formation produces exceptional fossils which are the world's finest examples of Eurypterus remipes — an extinct aquatic arthropod, popularly called a "sea scorpion." This rare and fascinating creature is the state fossil of New York.

Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center
P.O. Box 772, Hamburg, New York 14075
(716) 627-4560. Fax: (716) 627-4571

Penn Dixie is operated by the Hamburg Natural History Society. Groups can arrange for access to the site which exposes 380 million year old middle Devonian rocks. These rocks are very fossiliferous and guides can lead you and your group around the site and assist you with your fossil collecting.

New York Paleontological Society

The New York Paleontological Society has an extensive outreach education program of scientist and amateur fossil collectors all over New York and Pennsylvania. These speakers can give presentations to classes of all ages on a variety of geology and paleontology topics. The NYPS may also be able to assist you with finding a fossil collecting locality near your school by connecting you with local fossil collectors.
Rochester Academy of Science – Fossil Section