Paleontology rocks: Why fossil hunting is so on-trend

·4 min read

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A four-year-old girl has made headlines after discovering a 220-million-year-old fossilised dinosaur footprint on a beach in Wales, hailed as the "best ever found" by experts. And Lily Wilder, the budding young paleontologist, is in good company - because fossil hunting is massively on-trend.

Kate Winslet took up the hobby after starring in Ammonite, the recent film about British palaeontologist Mary Anning, and fashionable jewellery brand Alex Monroe has released an entire range inspired by prehistoric treasures.

Read more: Kate Winslet has become a fossil hunter

Experts such as Dr Fiann Smithwick, meanwhile, have huge and devoted social media followings - and they make fossil-hunting, previously seen as a worthy but rather fusty pastime or the preserve of Ross from Friends, look downright cool.

Fossil hunters looking among Eocene rocks on the Isle of Sheppey (Getty Images)
Fossil hunters looking among Eocene rocks on the Isle of Sheppey (Getty Images)

Staycationing Brits are also now flocking to fossil-hunting areas, such as Devon and Dorset's beautiful Jurassic Coast, Yorkshire's Whitby or Norfolk's West Runton, in the hope of making their own big discoveries on a UK holiday.

But what exactly are fossils - and how do we go about finding them?

Fossils are the preserved remains, impressions or other traces of animals and plants from another geological age - these can include bones, shells and more.

It’s very rare for living things to become fossilised after they die - most things just rot away. However, under certain special conditions, a fossil can form when the hard parts of a body (such as a skeleton) become buried under sediment. Through a complex and lengthly process, we get left with a rock replica of the original bone - a fossil.

"The best places to start are areas where fossil collecting is allowed," Carla Crook, Museum Operations Manager at The Etches Collection, a museum of prehistoric marine life in Dorset, tells Yahoo.

"There are many places that are SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) or that are privately owned so before one begins collecting, people need to understand the ‘Fossil Collecting Code’ of the area.

"Most beaches that contain fossils do not allow collectors to hammer the cliffs or to extract fossils from the foreshore - you are only generally allowed to collect loose items from the beach. It is not difficult – you just need your eyes to look!"

The clue's in the name - the Jurassic Coast is a haven for fossil-hunters (Getty Images)
The clue's in the name - the Jurassic Coast is a haven for fossil-hunters (Getty Images)

It's perhaps unsurprising that fossil hunting, like bird watching, has surged in popularity over lockdown - as we have searched for things to give structure and meaning to our daily walks.

"I think the COVID lockdown has given the public more time to get outdoors and make new discoveries, and with some of the latest finds making the news, it is attracting people get to the beaches and start collecting fossils themselves," says Crook.

In the fast and confusing times we're living in, people are being drawn to new hobbies which can help connect them with the natural world, and with ancient life.

"In order to understand ourselves and where our place is in the evolutionary story, people are wanting to make those all-important connections to the past, especially with a focus on the plight of the planet – eco-conservation and extinction," says Crook. "To protect our future, we have to look back to the past and see what we have already ‘lost’."

What's more, fossil hunting can be pretty thrilling. One of the biggest perks of the hobby, as young Lily Wilder can attest, is that absolutely anyone can make groundbreaking discoveries with very little experience. In fact, some of the UK's most important fossil finds have been uncovered by amateurs.

So, if you're sold, what's the best way to get involved?

For your first few digs, it's best to join an organised fossil hunt or tour, so you can learn how to find fossils without damaging either yourself or the local environment.

The UK Fossils Network has plenty of brilliant advice on how to find fossils and where to find group expeditions - plus, there's a forum so you can post a picture of your discoveries and get help identifying them.

So, now you know all about fossils - can you dig it?

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