Give it a go: Fossil hunting
Ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs? Foraging for fossils at the coast may be the closest you’ll get.
Meet Paddy Howe, a geologist for the Lyme Regis Museum. He takes visitors on guided fossil walks throughout the year.
Paddy's fascination with fossils started at a young age: ‘When I was a kid, I was fascinated by dinosaurs – because they were real whereas King Kong and Godzilla weren’t. My mum took me to Lyme Regis on a day trip when I was 6 years old. I was hooked on looking for fossils straight away and have been ever since.’
Paddy’s guide to safe and responsible fossil hunting
1. Join a guided fossil walk
Being part of an organised group can be safer and much more fun. You’ll get advice on the types of fossils to look for, where and how to look, and how best to preserve the fossils you find, as well as learning about the local geology and history.
2. Check tide times
You don’t want to be cut off by the tide. Go when the tide is on its way out. It’s not only safer, it gives you more time on the beach too and means you’re one of the first people on the beach if there’s anything obvious lying around. Time flies when you’re having fun so be aware of incoming tides too.
3. If fossil hunting alone …
Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. And always carry a means of calling for help.
4. Dress appropriately
Wear suitable and sensible clothing and footwear. The beach terrain can be quite rugged in places. There are slippery rocks, and slippery shale and mud if it’s been raining. You might have to scramble around boulders. If it’s cold and wet you’ll want clothing to keep you warm and dry, and if it’s warm and sunny you’ll need protection from the sun.
5. Keep hydrated
Take a drink and something to eat. It’s easy to get dehydrated on a warm day. And you’ll be surprised how long you can hunt for!
6. Look for regular shapes and patterns
Regular shapes and repeating patterns generally give fossils away so look out for these.
7. Bring a bag
You don’t need much in the way of fossiling kit. All you need is a bag for the fossils you find. People always think it’s about hammering but it’s not – it’s about looking.
8. Only take loose fossils
Finders keepers. Everyone is welcome to take home loose fossils found on the beach. Otherwise, they’ll only get washed away. If you find a fossil that is still embedded in a rock, you must get permission to extract it so that it can be scientifically recorded.
Get help rather than attempting to extract it yourself. Check with your guide if on a guided walk, or with a local museum, heritage centre or professional collector. You still get to keep the fossil, but it can be extracted without being damaged or destroyed.
9. Wear safety glasses
Experienced fossil hunters use special geological hammers to gently split open rocks to reveal and extract fossils. Only do this if you know what you’re doing, and always wear eye protection because small chips of rock can easily damage your eyes. Don’t hammer or climb cliffs – this could cause a landslide and some cliffs are protected.
10. Take your time
Don’t expect to find something straight away. Enjoy the search and the anticipation of potentially finding something that lived on this earth millions of years ago.
Three common fossils to look for
Belemnites were squid-like creatures. They had a hard skeleton called a guard. It’s this bullet-shaped guard that is commonly found as a fossil.
The spiral shells of ammonites are commonly found as fossils. Ammonites were related to squid and octopus.
Ichthyosaur teeth and bones
Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles with strong jaws and sharp teeth. Although finding a complete skeleton isn’t so common, finding their fossilised teeth and bones is.