January 31st

How do you find a dinosaur?

One of the most common questions about dinosaurs is how to find one. Paleontologists don’t go digging random holes and crossing their fingers, but the process hasn’t changed much in over a century.

Observation Deck
Observation Deck

Most discoveries aren’t even made by professional paleontologists, but by amateurs. Whether a seasoned professional or just a weekend rockhound, the hunt usually begins by prospecting–trekking around rocks of the right age, scanning for bone weathering out of the ground. Scientists spend much of their time looking for exposed fragments. When they are fortunate enough to find bones eroding out of the sediment, they carefully excavate around the bones, making sure not to damage them. Sometimes glues are applied to help protect brittle fossil bones, which are protected beneath the surface where they have rested for tens of millions of years but can be ravaged quickly once they return to the elements.

Usually, field workers dig around the bones, creating blocks of stone that they wrap in burlap and plaster–like a doctor setting a broken limb. This protective jacket keeps the fossil intact during travel back to a museum or research institution. Once there, scientists can work carefully under laboratory conditions to carefully remove the matrix from the fossils and prepare the bones for study and/or display. Sometimes this process can take months, and some specimens wait years for their chance to be prepared in this fashion.

But finding new dinosaurs doesn’t always require a trip to a desert. Many dinosaurs are found in museum storerooms, incorrectly identified decades earlier or never properly studied at all. Paleontologists can sometimes make drastic discoveries just by heading down to a basement vault.

If you want to find dinosaurs yourself, it’s easiest to head to a museum or a library in your hometown. But there are several dinosaur dig programs available for kids and adults alike. We highly recommend being a paleontologist for a day, or at least a few hours. What better way to explore the past than to dig up a dinosaur with your own hands?

Share your dinosaur dig photos with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.