How do you go about digging for fossils?

Let’s grant that some types of the landscape are more likely to contain fossils than other parts. Still, unless it’s something like the La Brea tar pits, you would have to think even in fossil-prone areas, only a minescule percentage of the area is actual fossil and the rest is just boring old earth and rock. So even if you identify a place which is more likely than average to contain fossils, you would have to do an enormous amount of digging to even have a remote chance of finding anything. And it’s not like you can use heavy equipment either, because you would just destroy whatever it is you’re digging for.

I’m aware that many fossil finds are the result of random people digging for other reasons and just finding fossils. But is that all of them? My impression is that there are scientists who specialize in finding fossils, and I imagine it’s something more than just getting in contact with a lot of accidental fossil finders. Or is that wrong?

Not all dirt or rock is the same, so at a broad level there is no point looking for fossils in most geological settings. Assuming you want dinosaurs, you also don’t want to waste time in older or younger geology. You’ll want the sorts of deposits that Nature has done the digging for you, so lots of erosion gullies and canyons etc that cut through and expose strata and their contents, which is why so much of the North American fossil-hunting takes place in badland country [plus its also more often govt land]. Elsewhere you might look for the signs of palaeo-river channels or where wind erosion has left hard stuff proud of the surface. Overall the most important thing is to develop an eye and know what you need to see in that setting. Staring at all the dirt on Earth without having trained up your eyes to see and highlight visual clues will find you nothing. And that happens with knowledge and practice.

Palaeontologists routinely survey the more fossil-rich areas that have the right age, depositional environments, preservation and visibility because natural processes will continue to expose more material. And the smart ones befriend the local farmers and train them to see.

Right. I noted this in the OP. The question is: suppose you did all that you describe and then picked the most likely spot of paleo-river channels etc. etc., and then started shoveling. What’s the likelihood that you find anything per day of digging?

Yes. Mostly it’s knowing about rocks, and exactly what kinds of rocks are likely to contain what fossils. You can eliminate most of the rocks on Earth that way. Then, like Banksiaman said, you start off with natural exposures. Some of the really spectacular sites started out as someone finding something interesting in a rock pile or slide, then working back to the source strata.That and railroad and railway cuttings. That’s how the Burgess was initially found.

Of course, there are parts of the world, like the Jurassic coast, where you almost can’t walk along the beach without tripping over fossils.

Depends what kind of deposit you found. I’ve been to a few localities where you are guaranteed to come away with some fossils, but’s that’s because they are mass mortality sites that my uni has been taking field trips to every year for decades.

Also, BTW, river channels are actually not great locations for consistently finding good fossils, far too dynamic an environment.

Paleontologists work on a site for a season, not for a day. Again, in some places, usually known sites, they can find something every day, although not necessarily good stuff. But I’ve read several accounts in which they found nothing until they were just about to leave but then stumbled upon a huge discovery.

You’re also thinking of bones. If you’re looking for fossil pollen, bacteria, or other small material it’s probably everywhere but you have to take the rocks back to the lab and process them extensively to find the microscopic stuff that’s hidden in them.

Looking for something in particular is also very different from just examining the area. Hominid hunters normally find lots of animal bones for every single hominid bone they discover. Knowing the animals present at a place and time is always valuable but it’s not what gets talked about outside of scientific journals. In my area any experienced fossil hunter could take me on an easy walk to a wall of rock chock full of trilobite fossils. But that’s basically amateur training material. Real paleontologists have picked through anything interesting there and gone elsewhere a century ago.

I thought the OP was talking about amateur fossil hunters. I used to love to do this as a kid. But anyway, they were all over the place as far as I recall.

When I visited White Sands NM I was surprised at how easily I could find them. I figured they surely would have turned to dust in such an environment.

It depends on which river, what type of fossils, and what you consider “great”. Rivers in coastal South Carolina (I live in the state, but not the fossily area) are teeming with shark teeth. And the land, in areas that used to be river channels. I’m on a Facebook group for Summerville SC shark teeth and people regularly find hundreds per week in creeks and streams and construction sites and back yards and seemingly everywhere you stick a shovel. That group recently had to go private because new Facebook Groups rules made it open season for spammers, but here is the page for a tour group which takes people on digs. (These are fossils that have been eroded from their matrix rock and reburied in ancient, now dry river basins.)

One tool in the paleontologist’s toolkit is the tothbrush. Another is the backhoe. Both are very important.

Use google to find the nearest fossil club, and go on their outings.

Yeah, so did I. When I was a kid, the creek down my street in Texas had walls of Austin chalk, and you could just pull out pieces and find sea fossils (also, scorpions, which added some excitement).

Yes, it does. It was a general statement, not meant to cover every case.

I also don’t consider reworked shark’s teeth to be good fossils, but then I’m coming at it from a scientist’s point of view, not a pure collector.

I had a number of trilobite fragments as a kid. I picked them up out of the broken shale at the local ski jump. One of them was from a piece I cracked open myself, so it had both the fossil and the inverse.

Quite a few fossils have been found by observant workers at quarries.

When I was a kid, I wanted to find fossils . I had a passion for it, but couldn’t find any.

I eventually did find them, almost literally in my back yard. A large area of woodland was bulldozed to make way for the construction of a school, but that never happened, so the site was left denuded of trees, and what happened is what you would expect – the soil eroded, causing lots of problems with silting up downstream. But it also left exposed a wealth of stones and pebbles. Most of them were boring, uninteresting quartzite lumps. But I found that, if you went through all of them in any area carefully, scrutinizing each one, you’d find things.

The first fossil I found was a bryozoan – “moss animals” that formed co,lonies and coral-like structures. It was the very regularity of the structure that gave it away as a fossil. Before that, I’;d never heard of bryozoans (I found out what it was from the Golden Guide to Fossils by Frank Rhodes and Herbert S. Zim, a book still in print).

Later I found pelecypods and echinoderms, but never the really showy kind of either. A waving head of crinoid would’ve been great, but I found what I think was simply a segment of stalk.

I would’ve loved to have found trilobites or fish skeletons or ammonites, but they evidently didn’t live in my area. A few hundred miles away there were reportedly fish skeletons.

As for bones of land creatures – that was a fond wish, but unrequited. They found a mastodon skeleton somewhere in my state, but not near my house.

The technical terms, FWIW, are “part” and “counterpart”.

That’s delightfully weird. I’ll try to remember that.

There is also “slab” and “counter-slab”, though I can’t say I was familiar with that one.

Hah. The first fossil I found was a beautifully preserved fern in a lump of coal. The leaves were outlined in gold-coloured pyrite.

This is the sort of bonus that solid fuel sometimes provided - very rare nowadays, I expect.

Yes, the best way is to go with someone who knows what they’re doing and follow their lead. It’s kind of like hunting wild mushrooms.

Your specimen may indeed be a fern, but just to note, there are types of dendritic pyrite that look like ferns, but are just the way the crystals grew

I recall reading that, years ago, hydraulic mining operations in Alaska (think of washing hills away with high-pressure water) were finding so many fossils that the professors finally told the miners to stop contacting them, they had collected enough.

(I know, it sure doesn’t sound right. You’d think that there would be enough museums around the world interested to keep collecting the findings.)