Fossil Hunting

In addition to profit potential, the process of fossil hunting can give you an intimate familiarity with the land and connect you to the history of life on earth.

| July/August 1980

I'm the sort of person who seldom leaves a stone unturned ... because I've found that rocks contain a great deal of history as well as profit potential in the form of valuable fossils. Indeed, fossil hunting is my passion.

In the creek bed near my house, for example, I've discovered sandwiched between layers of gray shale hundreds of specimens of a certain species of trilobite (Ampyxina bellatula). Many of the preserved creatures now grace shelves in my home ... and I've sold my extras to dealers, for $5.00 each! 

What to Look For

Fossils can be the petrified remains or impressions of entire animals or of their bony parts, skin, feathers, or tracks ... in short, the term is used to describe almost all bits of evidence that indicate the presence or passing of creatures long ago. Among the most interesting (and most valuable to collectors and museums) of such preserved beasts are the trilobites, which ruled the oceans some 500 million years back, and ranged in size from less than an inch in length to 18 inches or more. Though such life forms haven't been around for about 230 million years, their fossilized remains are commonly found all over the country ... often exquisitely preserved and showing all their original detail.

Trilobites are not, of course, the only fossil "game in town." A local rock shop owner pays me $4.00 each for preserved segments of a straight cephalopod a shelled forefather of the squid and octopus that lived in Missouri some 400 million years ago. Another large and perfect cephalopod specimen (which is worth several hundred dollars) takes up three feet of floor space in my study. 

Where to Look

Fossils can be found almost everywhere. Each hillside, quarry, road cut, outcrop, and stream bed is a potential "mine." Even the rocks in your field or garden may contain some of the time travelers. Certainly, though, the more you know about fossils and the geological formations in which they're likely to be located, the more specimens you'll be able to find.

The best "hunting ground" is sedimentary rock that was laid down under a prehistoric body of water and is characteristically (and usually recognizably) layered. Many of the organisms that lived in the lake, pond, or sea will be preserved within the solidified sediment ... particularly if they had hard parts such as shells, carapaces, or bones. The creatures will have "survived" the millions of years since their deaths as impressions (molds or casts), or will perhaps have been partially or wholly replaced by dissolved minerals. Since organic matter often disintegrates very slowly, such replacement can sometimes create an exact replica in stone ... even down to the animal or plant's cellular level. Occasionally (though rarely), some of the ancient life form's original organic matter may survive as well.

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