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Fossil Hunting

There are certain places along the Oregon Coast where fossils are plentiful and easy to locate. This is especially true at low tide or after a storm when the waves have lashed the cliffs and dislodged new rock and soil.

The Central Coast is considered by many as being the best hunting grounds for fossils on the Oregon Coast. But before you make the trip, it might help to know a little about fossils.

What Is A Fossil?

Fossils are evidence of past life preserved in a petrified form through a complex geologic process. When most of us think of fossils, one of the first images to pop into our heads may be of massive stone skeletons towering above us in natural history museums. But fossils can be both subtle and delicate too – like the carbon residue image of a leaf, a rodent’s midden or the microscopic impressions of ancient sea life. Fossils can also include discoveries as dramatic as an entire Wooly Mammoth preserved intact in a glacier.

How Do Fossils Form?

When an organism dies, it can be preserved through various chemical, physical or biological processes. Often the organism will quickly become embedded in sediment. This process limits the amount of oxygen which can reach the organism and slows the process of decay. The soft parts of the organism, such as skin and muscle, will decay faster than bone and so are less likely to fossilize. As more and more sediment settles on top of the organism, it thickens and slowly turns to stone. This process can happen at different speeds, sometimes as quickly as several hundred years, sometimes over tens of thousands of years. Eventually, every part of the organism decays away, leaving behind an impression or “mold.” Minerals will eventually fill this mold, creating a cast which can capture details of the organism right down to the microscopic level.

Fossils can also form through certain chemical processes. Plant fossils are often formed when certain bacteria destroy the organic material, replacing it with carbon which creates a dark “negative” image of the plant in the rock. Other organisms can become trapped in tree resin which fossilizes over time; or trapped in ice which has remained frozen for millions of years.

Why Are Fossils Important?

Fossils provide a direct, observable link to the Earth’s prehistoric past. Many of the plants and animals we can study from their fossilized remains no longer exist – and may have been gone for millions of years. Every time a paleontologist (a scientist who studies prehistoric life) pieces together a new fossil, he’s adding another piece to the complex puzzle of Earth’s past. Through the study of fossils, we can better understand how the Earth has changed, how life has evolved and how humans fit into the grand scheme of things.

Related Information: MacKenzie’s Lost Worlds In Stone

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Stone Treasures: The Law Protects Fossils

We have laws to protect certain plants, animals and places... so it stands to reason we’d have a few to protect fossils, too. The most important law is called the Omnibus Public Lands Act, Paleontological Resources Preservation – but you can just call it the OPLA-PRP. The law recognizes fossils as a “natural and irreplaceable part of America’s heritage” and provides protections so these ancient artifacts aren’t being looted from beneath our feet. The law is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. OPLA-PRP does allow major excavations for collect fossils on public lands – all those natural history museums would be pretty empty if it didn’t – but these digs have to be for serious scientific investigation and carried out by experts. Local and state laws may provide additional protections for fossils, so it’s always wise to research this a little before you start putting things in your pockets.

Collecting Fossils As A Hobby

It’s fine for you to collect fossils as a hobby, especially if the fossils are of common invertebrates and plants – but there may be restrictions on where you can collect from. If you’re on private land, you should always check with the property owner. If your on public lands, OPLA-PRP may require you to get a paleontological resource use permit to collect anything which is of “serious scientific interest.” As you probably guessed, these permits are pretty difficult to get unless you’re actually a paleontologist.

Collecting Fossils On The Oregon Coast

It is legal to keep fossils found on public beaches in Oregon, but if you’re in doubt, leave the fossil behind and take a photograph instead! Click on MacKenzie's Lost Worlds In Stone below for more on this topic.