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Collecting Fossils

Collecting a Fossil: the Process

Collecting fossils is an extensive endeavor that takes numerous steps, including: Research, Field Work (Prospecting and Quarrying), Preparing the Fossil, and Displaying.



Before any curator leaves the Museum they must do extensive research about what and where they want to collect fossils. This includes reading books, bulletins and journal articles and consulting maps. The journals that are consulted are specialized scientific journals such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Journal of Paleontology, or even Science. Reading these journals provides curators with information about recent discoveries from their colleagues around the world. 

Bulletins and institutional publications are also used for research. Bulletins are made up of a series of papers from various authors on a single subject or can be in-depth study that would be too long to put in a journal article. The NMMNH has published over 40 bulletins since 1992.

Maps are among the most important sources a paleontologist consults before going out into the field. The types of maps are: Land status maps, Geologic maps and Topographic maps. The various types of maps each provide distinct information.

Land Status Maps: These maps outline who controls a particular piece of land, whether it's the State of New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Military, a Native American tribe, or a private land owner. Paleontologists must have a permit or permission from the land owner in order to collect fossils.

Geologic Maps: These maps show paleontologists where rocks of certain ages are exposed; this helps them decide where they go to look for fossils of a certain age.

Topographic Maps: These maps provide a picture of what the actual land looks like; from these maps hills, mountains, arroyos, and plains can all be discerned. Often paleontologists will take copies of these maps into the field in order to orient themselves and note where fossils come from.


Field Work

Once research has been completed and the paleontologist knows where they want to go then field work begins. Field work is divided into two parts: Prospecting and Quarrying. 

Prospecting is walking a specific age of rock looking for fossils. Three types of sites are found by prospecting: Microsites, Single Excavation Sites, and Quarries. 

Microsites yield fossils that typically are 2cm or less and need to be put under a high powered microscope to be examined. The process used to recover these microfossils is called screenwashing. It consists of running bags of fossil rich debris through various sizes of screen with water and then picking the fossils out under a microscope.

Single excavation sites are just what they sound like, a single excavation with a limited amount of bone, usually a single bone or a single group of associated fossils. Most techniques used for quarrying are used for a single excavation, just on a smaller scale.


Quarrying is a type of excavation where the amount of bones at a site is extensive and requires multiple plaster jackets in order to remove. Usually quarries can be worked for many years or even decades before they stop producing fossils.  

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