Fossil Hunting

As we stood in the middle of Big Brook’s shallow, gentle freshwater stream in the center of New Jersey, I had a hard time believing that 72 million years ago we would’ve been standing at the bottom of a sea infested with sharks, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs (giant swimming reptiles). The tranquil Big Brook Preserve in Colts Neck, New Jersey offers paleontologists and paleontologist wannabes, like my daughters, occasional glimpses of this hostile marine past through fossils found along its stream beds. 

We had parked our car on the side of the road and walked down to the “Big Brook” which at its widest point, probably wasn’t more than 15 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Since it was a little challenging for our 7-year-old daughter, we slowly waded through the water in our rain boots to find a spot to look for fossils. In the end, we stopped along the bank of the stream where the water was only 2 to 6 inches deep.

Unlike paleontologists sweating in the heat of the desert as they use hammers and brushes to excavate massive dinosaur bones, we were comfortably in the cool shade of late spring hunting for much smaller treasures – fossilized shark teeth. Our tools for the day were also much simpler: garden trowels to scoop up rocks and pebbles, 2 homemade sieves, and plastic baby snack cups to hold any treasures we might find. This type of fossil hunting was actually more reminiscent of how people used to pan for gold.

We began our search by squatting along the banks of the brook and scooping up pebbles into our sieves. As we shook them out, we looked for shark teeth. Although this quest for fossils sounds simple, searching for the shark teeth was like looking for a needle in a haystack – all of the pebbles and rocks were various shades of white and gray, while the teeth were also gray. This was definitely a great way to work on our visual acuity as we tried to differentiate between pebbles and fossils! However, our family discovered a trick – the fossilized teeth were shinier than the pebbles! The rewards for our focus and determination were feeling like paleontologists and a handful of fossils! Shark teeth, a mosasaur tooth, and belemnites (basically ancient fossilized squid beaks)! Hooray!

Details:

  • Skills: Visual acuity (differentiating between pebbles and fossils), fine motor (picking through lots of pebbles), strength and gross motor (wading through the stream and squatting), patience
  • Preparation: Getting ready for this fun day was pretty easy – we brought sunscreen, water, lunch, and wore rain boots, although if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, you can just wear sneakers! Our tools for the day were pretty basic, small plastic containers to hold anything we found (we used our old, flip top, baby snack cups for easy access), garden trowels to scoop up rocks, and 2 homemade sieves. (Any type of sieve will do, but since we didn’t have any, we made 2 using garden stakes for the frame and plastic wire ties and duct tape to cover them with a wire mesh.)
  • Cost: Another great part of this fantastic trip was its minimal cost – gas for the car, tolls for the highways and bridges, and materials to make our sieves. Going with the NYPS was free as part of our $20 per year annual family membership! Families can also go on their own, but one of the perks of going with the NYPS was that the field trip leaders helped us to identify our treasures.
  • Time & Energy: It was a 90-minute drive from our house, which is a lot shorter and easier than going to famous paleontological sites in the deserts of the western US and the Gohbi Desert! We spent 3 hours hunting for fossils and took an hour break for lunch. Although I did see a couple of preschoolers there, I would recommend this for school-age children and older.
  • Contact Info: If you’re interested in going with the NYPS, check out their website (www.nyps.org). The next scheduled trip is on 5/3/2014. They have a great, inexpensive (about $7.00) field guide that reviews the geology and fossils of the area. If you’re feeling more adventurous and want to go on your own, be sure to check out the Big Book Preserve’s website (www.colts-neck.net/cgi-bin/pages?PAGE=recreationandparks/leagues/par_A_Big.Brook.Preserve) to learn more about the site and the rules for visitors.

1 thought on “Fossil Hunting”

  1. We’re heading back to Big Brook this Saturday 5/3 with the NY Paleontological Society! Hopefully, we’ll find some more shark teeth. If we’re super lucky (although it’s rather unlikely), we might find hadrosaurus teeth! Dinosaur teeth and bones have actually been found there.

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