There are few better ways to nurture a child’s interest in ancient life than by helping them start their very own fossil collection. But how do you actually get your hands on some of these calcified remains?
Unfortunately, dinosaur fossils are usually shipped off to museums as soon as they are found. You may someday, at a rather high expense, choose to acquire a fragment of a dinosaur bone. Until that time, a more modest fossil collection can be built in which each piece costs under twenty dollars and represents a different time in Earth’s history.
The best type of fossil to start with is the trilobite. This arthropod enters the fossil record 521 million years ago, and members of the order survived some 270 million years until the last of them died out during the Permian mass extinction. They range in size from less than an inch to several feet. Trilobites inhabited every ancient ocean, and their territory ranged from deep water to shallow seas. For this reason, trilobites are found on every continent. Many trilobites for sale come from the Southwest United States, and can even be found at rest stop tourist shops along major roads, such as route 66. Due to their ubiquity, these fossils often cost around fifteen dollars, so they are the perfect fossil to start a collection with.
The typical trilobite fossil is embedded in rock, and the surface of the animal has been carved out. However, there are trilobites from Morocco that were fossilized in soft sandstone and have been carefully etched out to the point where, even under a magnifying glass, the details of the beast’s anatomy remain visible. These fossils are pricier due to the time and craft involved in freeing them from the sandstone, but occasionally one can be found for under a hundred dollars.
Ammonites may look a bit like nautilus, but they were actually cephalopods that were more closely related to the modern day squid and octopus. Their fossils are spirals, and their name comes from the Egyptian ram-horned god, Ammon. Ammonites come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with the greatest visual difference being the pattern of fluting on the spiral. Some are preserved with their mother-of-pearl coating intact. Some are even iridescent, and are thus used in jewelry. Like trilobites, ammonites were plentiful throughout the ancient seas, and are found nowadays around the world.
Gastropods are a diverse group of mollusks whose fossil record dates back to the late Cambrian. Living members include snails and slugs. Of the over 600 families of gastropods, some 200 are extinct. Like ammonites, the gastropod fossil is often embedded in rock, displayed as a cross-section of the shell. Some rocks contain tens or even hundreds of small gastropods. Not all look like snail shells; some are long and thin, more closely resembling a unicorn horn. A gastropod fossil, or rock full of fossils, can cost as little as three dollars. You can purchase a variety of gastropods online.
Brachiopods also make for a reasonably priced addition to a fossil collection. These creatures have bivalve shells, and look much like the shells you find on the beach. They have existed since the early Cambrian, when they were abundant in the ocean, but have since dwindled in number and diversity. These fossils can be bought alone or in groups. They range in size from less than a centimeter to a few inches.
Fossilized fish and shrimp are beautiful, and are often sold on a flat surface suitable for framing. The great diversity of fish throughout time can be seen in the fossil record, so the fish you buy could be a small plant eater or a predator with rows of teeth nearly the size of its head. These pieces cost closer to a hundred dollars.
To round out your collection, you may consider buying a piece of petrified wood. Pieces can be as small as a penny or as large as a tree, and are priced accordingly. Art is often made with petrified wood, so you could buy a sphere, goblet, or earrings rather than a chunk, if you so wanted.
Eventually, you can work your way up to buying fragments of dinosaur bone that cost close to a thousand dollars, but it seems best for a starter fossil collection to be made of diverse pieces representing a range of sizes and phyla, modestly priced but handsomely preserved.