Your backyard is a fantastic place to plant a garden, have a barbecue party, or let children play. But could it be hiding a wealth of fossils? How likely is it that you can find fossils in your backyard?
You can find fossils in your backyard, especially if your property is rich in sedimentary rock like sandstone or chalk. This type of rock accumulates over time, making it the ideal place for plants and animals to become fossilized.
This article will explore how to find fossils in your backyard. We’ll also discuss what kinds of places are rich in fossils and the legality of keeping and selling the fossils you find.
How To Hunt for Fossils at Home
To hunt for fossils at home, you’ll first need to identify and mark underground electrical and plumbing lines on your property. After that, learn how to identify fossils, invest in fossil-hunting tools, and work in small cubic-foot sections. Always fill these sections in immediately after searching.
1. Identify and Mark Underground Electrical and Plumbing Lines
Before digging for fossils, it’s vital to identify and mark any underground plumbing, gas, or electrical lines in your yard. Attempting to dig without knowing where these lines are is dangerous and can result in expensive utility repairs. It can also be illegal.
In many states, it’s illegal to dig into the soil around your private property without first notifying local utility companies. So, the first thing you’ll want to do when hunting for fossils at home is call 811, which is known as the national “call-before-you-dig” number.
After you call this number, your local utility companies will send technicians to your property, who will then mark where subterranean utility lines are located, typically with small flags or water-based paint, thus allowing you to avoid them while you dig for fossils.
This process typically takes a few days to two weeks.
After your property’s utility lines are marked out, it’s time to freshen up your fossil identification skills. After all, telling a plain rock apart from a significant fossil can be challenging if you’re unsure what to look for.
2. Learn How To Identify Fossils
Fossils come in all shapes, sizes, and types. Consequently, identifying a fossil can take time and effort. For example, there are several kinds of fossils, including:
- Impression fossils, or external mold fossils, are created by impressions of plants and animals
- Body fossils, which are fossilized remains of creatures
- Bone fossils
- Fossilized teeth
- Egg fossils
- Trace fossils, such as fossilized footprints
Studying these different types of fossils is an excellent way to increase your chances of identifying them. Of course, it can take years of experience to become adept at differentiating rocks from fossils.
Luckily, paleontologists and museum curators can help you identify your backyard findings.
3. Invest in Fossil-Hunting Tools
Once you feel confident in your ability to identify fossils, it’s time to invest in fossil-hunting tools. For backyard fossil hunters, some of the most useful items to have on hand include:
- Plastic buckets
- Garden trowels
- Garden shovels
- Garden gloves
- Safety glasses
To make your fossil-finding experience a little more convenient, you’ll also want to invest in the following:
- A rock hammer (also called a geologist’s hammer)
- Hand chisels
- A clean paintbrush
- A mesh pan for sifting
- Measuring tape
Most of these items are readily available from local department stores or home improvement stores. For example, basic gardening tools, safety glasses, and plastic buckets are typically easy to find in local stores.
However, more specific items like rock hammers and chisels can take more work to find. Fortunately, there are several worthwhile options available online. You can even buy a premade kit.
One of the best premade kits for at-home fossil hunting is the WISEPRO Geology Tools and Rock Pick Hammer Set (available on Amazon.com). This set comes with almost everything you need to start your fossil hunting expedition, from a handheld garden trowel and gardening gloves to multiple chisels and specimen containers.
In any case, once you’ve gathered your necessary supplies, you can begin digging.
But you won’t want to start digging just anywhere. Instead, it’s vital to plan and organize your digs into distinct foot-by-foot sections.
4. Work in Small Cubic-Foot Sections
Use your measuring tape to square off foot-by-foot (one cubic foot) sections in your yard. If possible, mark these areas using dowel rods and yarn.
Working in small sections at a time ensures that you’re excavating and evaluating your yard in an organized, thorough manner. It’s a fantastic way to ensure you’re not missing any potential finds.
5. Follow the Bucket-to-Pan Routine
Let’s say you’ve chosen your starting location and marked it off. What do you do now?
The first thing to do is don your safety glasses and gardening gloves. Once you’ve done that, you can begin the digging process. Fossils can be found on the soil surface or hundreds of feet beneath the topsoil.
But you’ll probably want to stop at about 3’ (0.9 m) before moving on to the next section. Digging any deeper can become hazardous, as soil cave-ins are more likely the deeper you dig.
Remember, fossils are almost always found in sedimentary rock. As such, you’ll only want to focus on rocks that you find in your section. You should place these rocks in your plastic bucket, then continue digging until the section is complete and you’ve dug to about 3’ (0.9 m).
From there, you can break large rocks apart using your hammer and chisel. But if there’s a lot of soil clinging to those rocks, go ahead and pour them into a mesh pan and shake the pan back and forth. This allows the soil to separate from the rocks, making them easier to identify.
6. Don’t Forget To Fill in Your Sections
Before moving on to a new section of your yard, you’ll want to fill in the current section you’ve worked on.
Holes, especially those several feet deep, can become environmental hazards. It’s only too easy to trip or fall into these openings, which can cause injury to members of your household, pets, guests, and local wildlife.
7. Contact Local Paleontologists or Museums To Help With Identification
After you’ve concluded your backyard fossil hunt, you might have a collection of rocks and potential fossils to explore. But identifying these finds can be challenging, even for experienced fossil hunters.
For this reason, it’s always an excellent idea to reach out to local paleontologists and natural history museums for further clarification. Nearby universities and museums are typically more than happy to receive your findings and offer insight into what they are.
Emailing specific professors or museums to inquire about identification services is a great way to determine which institutions might be willing to examine your findings. Many museums and universities don’t charge for these identification services, but some do.
So, ask about fees or pricing when making your inquiries.
Seeking professional identification can also be profitable. After all, you might have unearthed an unusual or rare fossil during your search. If this is the case, your fossil could be worth thousands, or even millions, of dollars.
For more information, check out my article discussing what happens if you find a rare fossil: What Happens if You Find a Rare Fossil?
What Places Are Rich in Fossils?
Although fossils can be found worldwide, areas with lots of sedimentary rock are often the best places to find fossils.
Examples of sedimentary rock include:
Exposed cliff faces, also called outcrops, are a wonderful resource for fossil hunters, though not all homeowners and property owners will find these geologic features on their land.
Additionally, digging along these exposed bits of stone can be dangerous. Removing the bottom portions of a cliffside can weaken it and cause upper portions to fall (rockslides).
Consequently, digging into the soil when searching for fossils at home is much safer.
But not all residential properties are home to fossils, as fossilization is exceptionally rare. It’s estimated that the odds of an animal becoming fossilized are only about one in a million.
It’s also worth noting that the way our planet looks today differs from how it looked a billion or even a million years ago. The land you live on now may have been underwater, part of a mountain range, or even non-existent.
Depending on tectonic plate shifts and global climate changes, you could find anything from long-dead marine creature fossils to full dinosaur skeletons in your backyard. Or you could find nothing at all.
You can use an interactive map to discover how your home’s environment has changed throughout the Earth’s history. Simply input your current location and use the drop-down “years ago” menu to see how your property has transformed over time.
This resource is a great way to predict what types of fossils you might find while fossil-hunting in your backyard.
You should also check out my in-depth article listing the various places where you’re most likely to find fossils: 9 Most Likely Places to Find a Fossil
Can You Keep or Sell Fossils You Find in Your Backyard?
If you live in the United States and own your property, what you do with the fossils you find on your own property is up to you. You can check out my article discussing whether you can sell fossils you find for more information: Can You Sell Fossils That You Find?
However, if you’re renting a property from a landlord, keeping or selling fossils found in your backyard is illegal. From a legal standpoint, anything discovered on private property that doesn’t belong to you is the property of its current owner.
It’s possible to find fossils in your backyard, though the chances of discovering fossils vary depending on where you live.
To hunt for fossils at home, you’ll need to identify and mark electrical and plumbing lines, learn how to identify fossils, and invest in fossil-hunting tools to make the process easier. You’ll also want to work in small cubic-foot sections and fill in each section when you’re done.
If you’re a renter, you’ll need prior landlord approval before hunting for fossils. You might also be unable to keep or sell the fossils you find if you don’t own the property.