One of the most enduring questions about dinosaurs is how do paleontologists know where to find fossils? Unlike the impression you get from movies, finding dinosaur fossils isn’t as easy as walking through an area, seeing bones and sweeping dirt away.
Imagine this. You are in the middle of a desolate landscape, walking among chalky grey and white striped hills. It’s so hot and dry that when you perspire, the sweat evaporates instantly. You walk over steep hills, dodge rattlesnakes, hop over sage brush and march through a regiment of hoodoos. To the uninitiated, everything looks the same, but here in the badlands, for paleontologists and fossil lovers, it’s a dream come true. Because here among the bentonite clay and sandstones, rocks litter the surface of the ground. To the trained eye, some rocks look a little different than others. Welcome to fossil prospecting—the practice of looking for dinosaur bones and other fossils.
Prospecting for dinosaurs and fossils
In simple terms, fossil prospecting is the process of looking for fossils in areas with rocks of the appropriate geologic age. Paleontologists talk about fossils “weathering out” of the surface. What this means is that every year, as the snow and rain hits desolate landscapes, such as the badlands, dirt is washed away to uncover what is underneath. With every storm and through every season, fossils are uncovered during this natural process of erosion. Sometimes you spot a dinosaur bone sticking right out of a hillside. Other times small chunks of bone cascade or “float” down an area which can indicate a large, intact bone embedded close by.
Where in the US can you find dinosaur bones
Fortunately for those of us living in the United States, there is a large swath of land stretching from Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico that is a dinosaur lover’s dream. If you know where to look, you can walk through areas where tiny pieces of dinosaur bones litter the ground. Prospecting takes a lot of walking, a lot of patience and a keen eye. And still, there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything. But if you do find a dinosaur fossil and get the chance to excavate the bones of a creature that walked or swam the Earth millions of years ago, it’s among one of the most exhilarating feelings you’ll ever have. And who knows? There is always the chance that you’ve found something of real scientific interest or even a new species to spur the work of future research.