How and where to excavate fossils in the UK

Ever wanted to indulge your inner palaeontologist? Well now you can as ZSL senior research fellow Samuel Turvey explains how to hunt for dinosaur fossils.

Sam Turvey
Senior research fellow Samuel Turvey

Where are the best places in the UK to look for dinosaur fossils?

The Isle of Wight is probably the best place in the UK to try to find dinosaur fossils, and fossils of prehistoric marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs, which lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, can also be found regularly along the Jurassic coast of Dorset.

Fossils can be found on beaches or under cliffs, especially after a storm has damaged the cliff and made rocks fall down onto the beach - but you shouldn't approach cliffs if there is a danger of falling rocks.

What equipment do we need?

You can sometimes find fossils without needing any special equipment at all – fossils may just be lying exposed on the ground, after they’ve fallen from a cliff! You might want to use a special fossil hammer and chisel to chip fossils out of the cliff or the ground. Make sure you also have safety glasses to protect your eyes, and don’t go near to any cliffs if there is a danger of falling rocks. A hand lens is useful to see the fine details on small fossils.

Bring tissue paper or toilet paper to wrap the fossils with, and a small container (a Tupperware container or something similar) to put the fossils in, to prevent them from being damaged when you’re carrying them home. Make sure that you only go fossil-hunting in places where you’re allowed to, and not on private property.

What should we be looking for?

If you’re lucky enough to find a fossil dinosaur or other type of fossil vertebrate (backboned animal), you’re very unlikely to find the whole animal – instead, you might find a single tooth, or a piece of bone, such as a rounded piece of backbone. Fossil fish also leave plenty of scales and spines in the fossil record. You’re more likely to find part of a fossil invertebrate, such as the shell of a clam or a mussel, or an ammonite – an extinct relative of squid and cuttlefish which lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and which had a coiled shell like a ram’s horn.

What details can we learn from the fossils we unearth?

Fossils provide a window into the past – they allow us to understand what the world was like millions of years ago, what species and ecosystems existed at different periods in time. By showing us how life changed through time, they can show us how evolution happens. They can even be used to date the rocks they’re found in – rocks with similar types of fossils in them are likely to be the same age.

 

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's new exhibit Zoorassic Park is open to the public between 23 July 2016 and 4 September 2016, 11am - 5pm, and features eight life-size animatronic dinosaurs, as well as an education trail, live dinosaur talks and fossil digging activities.

 

Please note: We would advise all children be supervised by a responsible adult when looking for fossils and do not encourage anyone to put themselves in a dangerous situation.

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