PRI's Fossil Collecting Trips

Anybody from experts to amateurs can discover fossils during Paleontological Research Institute’s thrice-per-summer trips around Central New York.

Families are always looking for something to do that can engage them all so that dad isn’t left bored into distraction or restless children don’t find themselves causing trouble.

One option might sound unconventional, but has proven successful for many families in the area: The Paleontological Research Institute’s (PRI) Fossil Collecting Trips, held monthly throughout the summer, use science to provide an engaging experience for all ages. As unlikely as that may sound, Rob Ross, PRI’s associate director for outreach, swears by it. 

“Both novice collectors, like children to adults who have never gone fossil finding before, can see what that’s like,” he said. “[And] more seasoned collectors who might enjoy going to a new locality and being in the company of others.”

New York State’s fossil inventory is world renowned, at least for bones from the Devonian period, Ross said. This year’s trips highlighted fossil ranges in Tully, New York and Hamilton, New York in June and July, respectively, and will be taking participants to Cascade, New York on Aug. 24. Tools necessary for the experience, like small rock hammers and a fossil glossary, are provided by PRI. Fossil collectors meet at the event location and have three hours to collect all the fossils they can. 

The rocks being examined, Ross said, are usually much too old to contain dinosaur bones, as one might think at first sight of the word “fossil,” so the trips primarily uncover remnants from very early marine life. Most are invertebrates and could resemble something one might find on a trip to the beach, although despite the visual similarities, the two creatures would be quite different if compared when alive. 

The chosen sites, Ross said, hold a wealth of fossils, which makes it fun for people of any and all skill levels of fossil collection. Devonian fossils, as are found in this region, are from the Paleozoic era, which spans from about 420 million to 360 million years ago. Though they are obviously plentiful around here, they are named after Devon, England, where fossils from this era were first discovered and studied. 

“If you know where to go, there are some intervals of time and certain layers in which the fossils are so abundant that anyone can find them and collect as many as they would like,” Ross said. 

To participate in the trips, of which there is one more remaining this year at the end of August, and those interested can find information on the PRI website and also register whether they are PRI members or not (although members do receive discounts). Ross said his favorite part of the trips is watching others’ excitement at finding their first ever fossils and sharing them with the group.  

“People who have never been fossil collecting before are often surprised at how much they can find, even without prior experience,” Ross said. “And I’m sure as a byproduct, people learn about the history of New York State. People learn that fossil collecting is something that they can do, but that it’s also something that a whole family can do.”

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