What to Buy a Wannabe Paleontologist

Tuesday 30th January, 2024

Fossil hunting is just a nice way to describe digging in the dirt - much like how hiking is just walking in the woods, but that doesn't sound as intriguing on a Tinder profile.

Hiking is part of the main dating profile trifecta, which includes traveling and spending time with my friends.

Are there people who don't like those things? Can we just assume everyone enjoys these things unless specified otherwise?

Seriously though, there is no faster way to channel my inner eight-year-old than digging through dirt and hoping to find something ancient.

My favorite place to hunt for fossils is the North Sulphur River. Every time it rains, the river fills up and sweeps away another layer of sediment, revealing new finds that await the first set of eyes.

It's a unique place. My first finds were common species. So common, in fact, that once you get familiar with them, you can't unsee them. Brachiopods (basically ancient clams), Gastropods (snails), and Ammonites are everywhere⏤ from tile floors of classy buildings to landscape gravel in the grocery store parking lot. If you look at the stone walls of old buildings, you might see an Ammonite.

Once the thrill of the easy-to-find fossils wears off, the goalposts keep moving. No longer are you looking for ammonites or coral pieces, but teeth and bones.

It was probably my fourth or fifth trip to the riverbed that I found something genuinely unusual. It was a speck of black against a broad spectrum of greys and beiges. It was rounded, but not like a worn-down rock.

A fossilized acorn? Is that a thing?

After picking it up and giving it a closer examination it looked more like a tooth (it had a fragment of root attached), but a weird one.

I posted my weird find in the river's Facebook group. One semi-expert (I don't know that there are any true experts in the group, just those that have spent more time in the river) said it might be a mosasaur tooth (40-foot sea lizards with ginormous jaws, flippers, and shark-like tails). Another, more confident-sounding person, said it appeared to be a fossilized crocodile tooth.

I had seen plenty of mosasaur teeth posted in the group (and been jealous of each one), so I had to agree with crocodile guy. As much as I wanted it to be the speedy, extinct beast of the deep, my tooth was just too weird and stumpy.

After finding the tooth, my next fixation was to find a mosasaur vertebrae. It felt like every day someone was posting a rust-colored, door-knob-shaped bone they had unearthed. There were so many photos it was beginning to feel unfair as if this was an episode of Oprah and I was the only audience member to not have something under my chair.

I was desperate, and sometimes desperation warps your perception of things. It's like those posts on Reddit in r/relationships. It starts with someone saying, "So this guy I'm seeing is really great, but there's some things I'm worried about. Am I overreacting to this?"

They then proceed to describe a person who embodies Red Flag Mountain⏤someone who, if a true crime doc hasn't been made about them yet, it will be. "He likes to murder hamsters and commits check fraud weekly. Am I overreacting for wanting to leave?"

Well, I have a realistic view of my relationship, but I discovered that if I want a mosasaur vertebra bad enough, everything starts looking like one.

I should've put the pieces together when I "found" three in a single hunt.

They're just worn down… The river wore them down, I'd tell myself.

That's why they look different, but they're definitely still vertebrae.

It was beginning to sound an awful lot like, "He's a good guy. He was just having a bad day."

It wasn't long after finding my "definitely vertebrae", that a museum I follow on Instagram announced they were having a paleontologist on site to identify finds for the public over the weekend. It seemed like the perfect place to take my finds for confirmation.

They'll confirm these are vertebrae…. They're all vertebrae… Right?

Two nights before our trip to the museum, a tinge of fear tugged at me. My mind drudged up all the times I had posted what I thought were great finds to be met with the dreaded "Chert" or "Nodule" which was a professional way of saying, "You got nothing, my friend, that's just a regular ol' rock."

I thought if embarrassment were inevitable, I'd best be embarrassed in the privacy of my own home. So I posted my finds to the group and a general consensus was reached quickly.

I had nothing.

Just regular ol' rocks.

Who could have guessed?

The IDs were followed up with well-meaning suggestions of how to distinguish bone from rock, which was both helpful and gut-searing.

It took a good 24 hours for the embarrassment to fade to a bearable queasiness, but I was still left with a predicament.

Now what do I do? I wanted to meet a paleontologist, but I can't bring them rocks…

Then I remembered.

The tooth!

My husband and I made our way to the museum in San Antonio with the "probably crocodile" tooth in hand.

I can't say enough good things about The Witte Museum. A huge Quetzocoatlus (a Pterosaurs that stood at giraffe-height and had the wingspan equivalent of a city bus) loomed over guests in the entrance as another hung above, allowing one to truly grasp its size. It was easy to imagine being scooped up as dinner takeout like how a hawk nabs a chicken.

Though the museum exceeded my expectations, finding the paleontologist seemed impossible. Time was ticking and my identification window was closing.

After an hour of madness, asking multiple museum employees, and coming to dead ends or places we weren't supposed to be, we finally found what seemed to be the right place.

Two guys, who had a "paleontologist air" about them, sat at a table littered with books behind a roped-off area. A very professional lady with a headset stopped us and had us wait our turn.

It was no wonder we struggled to find them, they were tucked in an easy-to-miss hallway.

I couldn't help but wonder why they had been stuffed in such an easy-to-miss hallway. Did they only want determined ID seekers? Were they held against their will?

It was my turn. I nervously stepped forward.

The older paleontologist's expression was tired, maybe a little jaded, and certainly skeptical of what I had.

"I think I have a tooth," I said, fumbling to take the tiny plastic case out of my bag.

The fellow beside him, probably half his age, and not yet jaded seemed interested and even a little optimistic.

I handed the more seasoned paleontologist the case, and after a brief struggle, he asked me to open it for him.

"Where'd you find it?"

"The North Sulphur River."

His expression changed, but I couldn't quite place it. Still skeptical, but the wall of jadedness was corroding a bit. He was at least interested now.

He studied it under his eye loupe as I stood in suspense.

Shortly after, he looked up at me and said flatly, "This is a tooth of a Globidens Mosasaur."

My face lit up. I could hardly believe it.


Excitement bubbled within me, but I was reluctant to let too much out. This didn't feel like the place for it.

He gave a confident nod, handed it back, and flipped open a book littered with bookmarks and notes. He pointed to a picture of someone else's find that looked exactly like mine. He explained how my tooth was more rounded than most Mosasaur teeth because that particular species ate a lot of mollusks and the rounded teeth allowed them to break through the shells.

"Yes!" I said, "That's so awesome and explains so much. Thank you!"

The younger paleontologist beside him became excited, asking to see the tooth, and intently eavesdropped on the rest of our conversation.

"I did a lot of work in that same river," The paleontologist continued, "I found a stack of turtles there once that's on display at Perot."

I was mentally taking notes. I had to see these turtles since I have now met the man who found them.

We talked a bit more about the river, and his face seemed to lighten. I thanked him again, took my tooth back, and as we were leaving his voice echoed down the hall, "Thanks for bringing something that was actually a fossil."

I smiled with pride, squishing down the thought of the doom I had dodged. What if I had brought my "vertebrae"? I would have added to the pile of nonsense that likely filled their day. I would have been yet another patron being told "This is a rock." Would that have been the final straw that made them flip tables? A grown woman convinced her rocks were bones?

It didn't matter. It didn't happen.

Most importantly, my tooth had belonged to a clam-crushing mosasaur and not a crocodile.

On paper, fossil hunting might sound lame, but in my mountain of hobbies, it is one of the more exciting and grounding ones. It's hard to be upset or think of your small-world problems when you find something millions of years old. It's a reminder that you're small in the grand scheme, which is somehow… freeing?

If you've got a fossil hunter in your life or someone who'd like to try it out, it's a very accessible hobby. You only need a trowel, a rock pick, footwear appropriate for the environment, and a bag or backpack to put your finds in.

Natural History and Science Museums also go hand in hand with fossil hunting. Finding a good museum can scratch that same itch, and it's worth checking out smaller, lesser-known museums too. They all have their own strengths, weaknesses, and unique exhibits, but I have yet to find one that felt like a waste of time.

So if you need to find a gift or inspire an aspiring paleontologist, Museum gift cards or tickets, basic but sturdy and reliable tools, or some solid hiking boots will get them off to a great start. For someone who already has these things or has been hunting for a while, books to help identify species of their region, or geological maps are a great gift.

I'm about to gift myself with a visit to The Perot. I have to see this stack of turtles.

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always has been, always will be