Following the positive feedback we got after posting our Top 10 rock-pooling tips earlier this year we thought it would be good to do the same for fossil hunting. So we asked Tim Burkinshaw to write us a few ideas down, Tim led a couple of our summer fossil hunts for us so here are his top tips (with a few additions from the rest of the team).
1. Plan ahead and stay comfortable Dress warmly, be prepared for wind or rain (even in summer), wear strong shoes or boots, carry a drink and snacks, sun-cream etc. You may like to take a fossil spotting chart with you and something to wrap your finds in (old newspaper and some zip-lock bags are great). Before you go do some research online at sites like the Natural History Museum.
2. Stay safe on the seashore Always go fossil hunting on a falling tide, keep clear of crumbly cliffs and take care of slippery rocks – especially smooth surfaces covered in a green algae. Local newspapers and websites publish tide times or consult local noticeboards, the BBC has a full list of tides here, and there are plenty of apps available for mobiles. Always tell somebody where you are going and what time you will be finished, don’t rely on a mobile phone signal, they often don’t work close to the cliffs. Your safety is your own responsibility.
3. Have an eye for detail Look for regular lines, marks or patterns on pebbles, like the ridges or growth lines of a shell. Look for tiny pieces among the beach pebbles, not just big stones. Often crinoid stems or belemnites can be as small as your little fingernail.
4. Use colour and texture for clues Study larger slabs of rock to get your eye in for the colours and textures of the best fossil-bearing strata. Geologists use the word ‘lithology’ to describe characteristics of differing layers of rocks. Once you know what the best bits look like try to spot smaller fragments of the same lithology.
5. Focus on clusters of pebbles gathered together by the tide Material washed and tumbled smooth by the sea often shows up fossil patterns better. Similarly wet pebbles may show fossil marks better than dry, so if you’re dressed for it, fossil hunting can be a good activity for a wet day at the seaside.
6. Try to think in three dimensions We don’t always find entire fossil creatures of shells, sometimes fragments of them or see a cross-section (a ‘slice through them’) where rocks have been worn away. Try to imagine what part of a shell would look like sliced through at different angles. White zig-zag marks could be the ridged edge of a clam shell, a perfect oval shape could be a circular belemnite at an angle to the rock surface.
7. Fossils are rarely found by breaking open rocks randomly Instead look for pebbles with marks or lines round the ‘equator’. With care and practise these can be split open to sometimes reveal an ammonite, but don’t expect perfect results every time. At some geologically important locations hammering is not permitted so check with someone in the know (like a local fossil shop or museum). Often the best fossils are found without hammers anyway. Many fossils, especially larger ones or those preserved in the wave-cut platform cannot be collected with breaking them, so leave them there and take a photograph.
8. Be considerate and choose your favourites Remember rocks are heavy to carry so be selective in what you take and leave some for other people to enjoy finding. If you find something exciting or unusual show it to an expert who can tell you what it is, try your local museum or geology group. The team at Hidden Horizons is always more than happy to identify material for you details here just remember to always record where and when you found the fossil, that is the one piece of information only you will know! Responsible fossil hunting plays an important part in palaeontology and geology. Irresponsible collecting is exactly that and helps nobody. There is some excellent guidance on the Jurassic Coast fossil finder website, which is relevant beyond the south coast!
9. Fossil hunting can be done all year round In fact some of the best pickings come after a spell of stormy weather has moved beach material around or eroded fresh chunks of rock. Strong tides can create ‘scouring’ conditions removing sand from the rocky foreshore, exposing new areas to look, but remember keep safe. Beaches known for fossils are well-picked over in busy times of year. In calm conditions parts of the rocky foreshore may be covered up with sand.
10. Go on an organised fossil walk A great way to learn the basics and get local insight is to join an organised walk, such as those offered by Hidden Horizons. We can show you how to find fossils, where to look, identify anything you find and equip you with the skills to begin a lifetime’s enjoyment of fossil hunting.
Finally – have fun, stay safe, collect responsibly (especially when using a hammer) and don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help, there are plenty of people willing to help, from local fossil shops, museums, geology groups, online forums or even ourselves here! If you need any further persuasion to give it a go then here is what Sheena Hastings said in the Yorkshire Post this summer about one of our trips, ‘In an instant – in a couple of sentences, in fact – he changed how I will view the coastline forever’ you can see the full story and video here.