NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – How easy is it to find fossils in New Mexico? Does one need an entire team of paleontologists to back them up? The truth is, an eagle eye and a curious mind can help someone spot some fossils just by going on a simple hike.
The Land Before Enchantment
The New Mexico landscape is full of prehistory and, if you know what you’re looking for, you might be able to spot some remnants of that rich past. Dr. Thomas Williamson, the curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, says the state’s geologic record spans about half a billion years. “So we have from late Cambrian time, which is in the early Paleozoic – it’s about 400 million years or so – up until recent,” he says.
Under the Seaaaaaa!
Well, not exactly. According to Dr. Williamson, northern New Mexico is a good place to spot late-Paleozoic marine fossils. “There were shallow seas covering large parts of the state, so you find large amounts of late-Paleozoic things like brachiopods, crinoids; organisms living in shallow seas,” says Dr. Williamson. He says usually, Paleozoic limestone will be exposed on the surface.
As far as around the Albuquerque area, Dr. Williamson says southern Albuquerque can also be a good spot to find fossils. “Around the airport. A lot of those gravels date back to the last ice age, and a lot of those gravel pits you find ice age mammals in like mammoths, camels, horses, things like that – dating back to about 10 to 50,000 years,” Dr. Williamson says.
Put that thing back where it came from
One thing the doctor stresses, however, is that you shouldn’t just pick up and take any fossil you might see on the ground. “In the United States, it is illegal to collect vertebrate fossils from federal lands without some sort of a permit,” says Dr. Williamson. He suggests taking a photo, getting the coordinates using GPS if you can, and sending the info to the Natural History Museum before taking further steps. On the flip side, Dr. Williamson says invertebrate and fossilized wood is legal to collect from public lands in most places.
If the invertebrate fossil is on private land though, you should get the permission of the landowner.
So when do I get the pickaxe and those little brushes?
If finding a fossil on your adventures piqued further paleontological interest, you’re encouraged to volunteer at the museum. “Typically, volunteers can come in and they can train to prepare fossils, to help us extract fossils from the rocks that we collect,” says Dr. Williamson. “We often take volunteers out with us, out in the field to help us collect stuff.”
Information on possible volunteer opportunities is available on the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science website.