Learning More About Dinosaurs

How to Find Dinosaur Bones

How do paleontologists, or even amateur collectors, find dinosaur fossils?

The key to finding dinosaur fossils (or fossils of any kind) is to search in the right types of rocks. For fossils, this generally means sedimentary rock, which are rocks composed of materials such as sand or mud that were deposited in a lake, river, or ocean. However, not all sedimentary rock contains fossils, much less dinosaur fossils. The right combination of factors must have existed for a dinosaur to have been transformed into a fossil in sedimentary rock.

To find dinosaur fossils, paleontologists must locate sedimentary rocks laid down during the right time. In the case of dinosaurs that means periods within the Mesozoic era. For example, if the paleontologist is interested in Jurassic period dinosaurs, then he or she should be looking for rocks deposited during that time, not the Cretaceous period. Once the specific age of the rocks is determined, the location of such rocks can be determined from a geologic map of the area. These maps pinpoint the locations of the various rock types exposed at the surface, and shows an area’s topography (height of the land).

Once a location with the right type of rock is determined, the paleontologist explores the area on foot, checking for exposed rock, and features that may have led to exposed rock, such as folds and faults. The paleontologist also looks for areas where erosion—due to action by water, wind, or even humans—continually wears away the sedimentary rock. This ensures a continuing exposure of the rock and any fossils within the rock.

The last step is to continually search the area, which often leads to spotting an exposed bone or other fossil part. This may all sound very simple, but it is not: patience and perseverance are the key ingredients at this stage of the search. Once the paleontologist makes a dinosaur or other fossil find, then the excavation, transportation, and restoration processes begin.

Amateur fossil hunters can obtain topographical and other detailed maps from the U.S. Geological Survey at little cost (iStock).

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