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Discovering a rare fossil can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that your treasure forever. But are you allowed to keep the fossil that you find? What happens after finding a rare fossil?
If you find a rare fossil on a property you own, you’re permitted to keep the fossil. However, if you find a rare fossil on public land or private property owned by someone else, you must report it to the property owner and leave it where you found it.
This article will delve into what happens if you find a rare fossil. We’ll also discuss the qualities that make a fossil rare and what to do if you discover an unusual or rare fossil.
Can You Keep Rare Fossils That You Find?
If you find a rare fossil on your own private property, it’s perfectly legal to keep it. However, keeping rare fossils discovered on public property is generally illegal. The same is true for fossils found on private property belonging to someone else.
But how do you know that the fossil you’ve discovered is rare? After all, the average person can’t easily differentiate a common fossil from an exceptionally rare one.
What Makes a Fossil Rare?
You can use a few key indicators to determine whether a fossil is rare or common. Some of the most crucial factors that determine a fossil’s rarity include:
If you’ve never found a fossil before, or you’ve only discovered a few, and you suspect that the fossil you’ve just found might be unusual, you can make a few educated guesses using these factors.
How Condition Impacts Fossil Rarity
A fossil’s condition is one of the most significant factors impacting its rarity. To understand why the condition can make such a significant difference, and what fossil condition means, let’s briefly discuss one of the most common fossilized creatures on Earth: trilobites.
Trilobites are marine creatures that lived between 500 and 250 million years ago. You can find their fossilized remains worldwide, from China to Canada.
Even though trilobites only lived in the ocean, their fossils appear in hillsides, mountain caves, and deserts. That’s because Earth’s topography has changed drastically over the last several million years, transforming ocean floors into mountains and pushing early deserts deep beneath the waves.
These geologic changes are powerful enough to destroy fossils. Consequently, most trilobite fossils found over the last few centuries are in pretty poor shape.
The best trilobite fossils which are in excellent condition, reveal tiny details like head spines, exoskeleton textures, and segmented vertebrae. But the chances of discovering such fossils are low, as time, geographic changes, and erosion can turn fossils into dust.
How Fossil Types Effects Rarity
There are many different types of fossils, ranging from trace fossils, like dinosaur footprints, to body fossils, which are preserved skeletal remains and tissue. The latter fossil type is far rarer, making it much more valuable to both scientists and private collectors.
For perspective, approximately less than 0.1% of all animals that ever existed on Earth have become fossils. So, the chances of finding a fossil that contains preserved biological tissue such as hair, bones, or skin, are incredibly low.
Fossils formed from fragile materials, like eggshells, are also extremely rare.
High-quality body fossils are typically only found in Lagerstätten, which are sediment containing well-preserved remains. Most of these unique sites are protected areas located relatively far away from residential and commercial properties.
Some notable examples of Lagerstätten sites in the United States are:
- Waco Mammoth National Monument
- Rancho La Brea Tar Pits
- Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
However, fossil type and condition aren’t the only factors impacting a fossil’s rarity. Size also plays a role in whether a fossil is considered rare.
Why Large Fossils Are Considered Rare
Massive fossilized skeletons and remains are a spectacle, but they’re also far harder to find. In fact, there’s only one fully complete fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the world, which is part of the Dueling Dinosaurs fossil.
Nearly all dinosaur skeletons displayed in natural history museums are made of authentic fossilized bones and composite “replica” bones.
That’s because the few remains that end up turning into fossils can fall prey to natural processes like erosion. After all, fossilized remains are essentially rocks and stones, which weather away when exposed to wind, water, ice, and extreme temperature changes.
Additionally, recently deceased creatures that could become fossils are often a target for scavengers. So paleontologists might find partial skeletons, only to discover that some ancient creature dragged the other half of the remains away while millions of years ago.
What to Do With Rare Finds
It can be challenging to know what to do after discovering a rare fossil. The right course of action depends on whether you find the fossil on your own property or someone else’s, including public land.
Private Property You Own
If you find an unusual fossil on a property you own, you’re lucky! You can do whatever you’d like with the fossil, from keeping it to selling it.
However, you won’t want to expose the fossil to water, cover the fossil in a sealant, or attempt to clean the fossil using household cleaning products like bleach. Water and cleaning liquids can damage a fossil.
If you’re worried about the fossil’s newfound exposure to air and sunlight, you can install a canopy tent over it to help protect it from the elements. And unless you’re a paleontologist, you’ll want to have the fossil professionally identified and dated.
Having Your Fossil Professionally Examined
Enlisting the help of local academics with paleontological expertise is a fantastic way to verify that the fossil you’ve discovered is indeed rare. It can also help you select a value for the fossil if you decide to sell it.
If you don’t know any paleontologists, the best course of action is to contact the nearest university with a paleontology program or department. You’ll most likely find contact information for paleontology professors by exploring your chosen university’s website.
When emailing these professors, it’s best to include images of the fossil you’ve discovered, as this can help with basic identification. However, professors may request that you mail or personally deliver the fossil for more precise identification services.
If the fossil you’ve discovered is rather large, and too large to fit into your vehicle, the paleontologist might even ask permission to visit your property for an in-person examination.
Those who don’t live near colleges or universities with paleontological programs can also opt to contact local natural history museums. Most natural history museums have on-site museum paleontologists, and these professionals are often happy to identify fossils, especially rare ones.
That said, fossils must travel to laboratories for radiocarbon and potassium-argon dating services. So, don’t expect a paleontologist to be able to tell you old a fossil is simply by looking at it.
Once you know what kind of fossil you’ve found, and roughly how old it is, you can choose to keep it, donate it to a local museum or university, or sell it. Each option has its advantages and drawbacks, but selling rare fossils via auction houses or online platforms is the most profitable choice.
Property You Don’t Own
If you find a rare fossil on residential property that you rent or public property, you’ll want to leave it be. So, you won’t want to:
- Dig into the soil around it
- Pick it up or move it
- Remove it from its original location
You can take a few pictures of the find to share with the relevant authorities or the property owner, but under no circumstances should you touch or move the fossil. Doing so could be illegal, especially if you’ve found the fossil at a national or state park.
Only individuals with fossil collection and research permits can legally remove fossils from government-owned lands. The only exceptions to this rule are parks that permit visitors to collect fossils from specific areas.
Some examples include:
- Fossil Park (Sylvania, Ohio)
- Mineral Wells Fossil Park (Mineral Wells, Texas)
- Caesar Creek State Park (Waynesville, Ohio)
Fossil hunters should be aware that these parks have specific rules regarding how many fossils you can collect, how large the fossils you take home can be, and what tools you can use when searching for fossils.
Rare fossils discovered on private property that you own are yours to keep, sell, or do whatever you’d like with. But rare fossils discovered on private property owned by someone else or public property, such as national and state parks, are an entirely different matter.
It’s illegal to remove fossils from public lands or keep fossils discovered on private property that doesn’t belong to you. However, if you’re fortunate enough to find a rare fossil on your property, you could sell it for big bucks!