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A short trail on the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Utah leads to a spectacular view into Bull Canyon, 1000 feet below, and to several sets of dinosaur tracks. Use caution where you walk and sit, and leave objects where you find them. These are irreplaceable resources that provide clues to our biological and cultural heritage. It is illegal to damage sites, cast fossils and tracks or remove artifacts.

What is Paleontology?

Paleontology is the scientific study of life in the geologic past, based on examination of fossilized remains of once living organisms, such as tracks, bones, teeth, plants, and shells. Fossils are unique, nonrenewable resources that paint a ancient portrait of life on Earth. This history was written over billions of years in the pages of sedimentary rock layers, where fossils are entombed until exposed by erosion or other shifts in the Earth. 

What are fossils?

Fossils are any evidence of past life, including:

  • Traces: impressions, burrows, trackways.
  • Plants
  • Invertebrates: animals mainly known from shells
  • Vertebrates: animals with bone, cartilage or teeth
  • Microfossils: very small organisms that require magnification to identify

Is paleontology the same as archeology?

No. They are two distinct yet somewhat similar sciences.

  • Paleontology is the study of fossils, such as shells, plants, tracks, bone, wood, and animals.
  • Archeology is the study of human remains and artifacts, such as historic homesteads, pottery, stone tools, and rock art. Remember, artifacts begins with ‘art’; something created by humans.

There are important legal differences in how paleontological resources (fossils) and archeological resources (human remains and artifacts) are managed on Federal lands.

What is the Forest Service role? 

Fossils are known or have potential to occur on roughly 50 percent of lands managed as national forests and grasslands. Fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks are often well exposed in the arid lands, such as the Great Plains and the Western U.S. One example is a 150-million-year-old dinosaur track site – the largest in North America – on the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado.

Preserving and protecting special paleontological areas is key to holding onto a part of the geologic past to study now and in the future. Once a paleontological resource disappears, that unique piece of Earth’s history is gone forever. The agency requires that anyone who wants to study fossils in the field must obtain a paleontological permit to ensure the integrity of the study and that any discovery be available to the scientific community. When someone unearths a fossil, they are the first person to see it. Scientific and ethical responsibilities go along with these discoveries. 

What happens when fossils are unearthed?

Fossils are preserved for research, education, and scientific values. They are kept in non-federal partner museums, places where specialized staff know about long-term care of fragile fossils. In museums, scientists and the general public can learn more about the story of life on Earth. The public can educate themselves through interpretive information, visiting displays in museums, or getting involved with professionally conducted fossil collection opportunities.   

Can I collect fossils?

If you plan to collect fossils, make sure you know the rules.  Forest Service regulations allow for casual collection of ‘common’ fossils that are not connected with scientific study. However, such opportunities are allowed only under certain circumstances, and collection is a privilege that carries with it responsibilities. Contact the national forest or grassland where you are interested in searching to understand what you can and cannot do, and how you might assist in reporting fossil locations to scientists. If you are unsure whether a particular invertebrate or plant fossil is common and abundant, or otherwise meets the conditions established for casual collection, a good rule of thumb is to not remove or disturb it without seeking advice from the local Forest Service office. This ensures these resources are managed for the benefit of future scientific work and for the enjoyment of visitors. Unauthorized fossil collection is a violation of federal law. You are responsible to know what and where it is legal to collect fossils. Know before you go.

Are there volunteer opportunities?

Volunteers are an integral part of what we do every day. Volunteers and students work with our paleontologists and partners to discover, collect, and conserve important fossil specimens. The Forest Service conducts volunteer projects for scientific and educational purposes. Connect to Passport in Time, or check with local museums to find out about volunteer opportunities.

Where can I learn more?

The best way is to visit some of our exciting sites, where you can see fossils first-hand vestiges. In the meantime, read our blogs:

Biting Down on the Origin of a Tooth

Dinosaur Parts Unearthed on Colorado Grassland

Digging Those Dinosaurs on National Forests, Grasslands

46 Million-Year-Old Eocene World in a Forest

Buried Alive: The Petrifying True Story of a Forest Turned to Stone

Volunteers Have Fossil Field Find on Forests and Grasslands

Custer-Gallatin Petrified Forest

Dinosaur Lake