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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Illustration of ancient flora
Photo of Ray Stanford holding a dinosaur trackway

Question: When did you start collecting fossils, and what got you hooked?

Answer: In August of 1993, while with my children exploring what we didn't realize at the time were 110 million-year-old outcroppings in Prince George's County, Maryland, we happened upon an isolated iguanodon footprint, which as we soon learned, was of Early Cretaceous age. I might not have recognized what the footprint for what it was, had I not recently bought Dr. Martin G. Lockley's book Tracking Dinosaurs (Cambridge University Press, 1991). A few days later, I came across a smaller iguanodon footprint at another location! Then came the weekend. After finding what I realized from my reading were the first sauropod footprints ever found east of the Mississippi River, I really got hooked on dinosaur tracking. The realization that I might be figuratively sitting upon a paleontological 'bonanza' set a fire of excitement within me that annealed my determination to search this area for every findable trace left by its vertebrate animals of about 110 million years ago. After nearly twenty years, I am still at the job.

Question: What do you enjoy most about collecting fossils?

Answer: Seeing, recognizing, touching, and documenting for science what had not been known before. In short, the sense of discovery and contributing new knowledge to the science of natural history.

Question: Do you look for a particular kind of fossil?

Answer: No, I don't go looking for any particular kind of fossil. I simply educate myself (by studying good books on fossils) and go looking for whatever is there. If you go looking for just one particular thing, you are possibly not going to notice other really important fossils which might be found at a search site. If, for example, I were just going looking for huge, coffee-table size dinosaur tracks, I not only would find very few of those, but I would likely overlook the wonderful tiny baby and even hatchling dinosaur trackways, which were the first evidence telling us that dinosaurs nested right, speaking figuratively, in the Smithsonian's 'back yard'! Had I overlooked those tiny hatchling dinosaur trackways, I might not have realized what I was looking at when I came across the unusually fossilized hatchling of a new species of nodosaur (an armored dinosaur that can be huge when grown), which now, much to my joy, is permanently displayed in the Natural Museum of Natural History 'Dinosaurs in Our Backyard' display!

Question: Why did you decide to donate specimens to the Smithsonian?

Answer: The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian, is not only the nearest such museum to where my contributions were found, but Dr. Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosaurs there, is the type of person with which I like to cooperate. He is a good listener who understands my reasoning as a finder-collector, and he makes me proud to contribute unprecedented specimens of bona-fide interest both to paleontologists and to lay persons of all ages. Contributing important fossil finds to the Smithsonian potentially gives them not only maximum access to research paleontologists, but, when displayed, to a huge annual audience, where children may receive inspiration.

Question: You have collaborated with scientists to describe some of your fossil finds. How did those collaborations come about?

Answer: I knew of Dr. Martin Lockley, an expert on dinosaur-age tracks from of the University of Colorado (Denver), so when I heard him on Public Radio, I called in and invited him to come see my collection. He came to see what I'd found, and we decided to do a joint scientific paper, along with Dr. Robert Weems, of the U.S. Geological Survey. That paper describes and names Maryland's first trace species: front and back footprints of a hypsilophodontid dinosaur. Next, we did an overview of my whole collection of tracks from the Lower Cretaceous of Maryland.

Question: Do you have any advice to people who want to go fossil hunting for the first time?

Answer: First, decide what type of fossils most interest you, and study to learn exactly where fossils of that type and age might be found. Access a geological map at your state geological survey's website. If it's dinosaur tracks you're hoping to find, you must locate areas where there are either Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous outcrops, and go there. It you wish to search on private land, locate the landowner and seek permission to look for fossils. Be very polite, and some of them will likely say, "Have at it!", inviting you to search the streams and streambeds which run through the property. When you reach a promising site, RELAX your mind. Don't be up-tight about finding anything. Simply enjoy being there and, as I tell people, "Relax! Sniff the flowers." Enjoy looking at everything on the ground around you. Look at the little things, the big things, and everything in between.

If, during your outings, you begin to find things that seem to be important fossils, please don't keep them to yourself. Carefully compare what you've found with fossils of the same general category, as are easily found in books and on the websites of many museums, then show your best finds to local amateur fossil collectors who are experienced at identifying area fossils. If they agree that your finds are scientifically important, then seek the opinion of one or more professional paleontologists who are familiar with your type of finds. Once you have certified really important discoveries, publish them with the help of experienced, professional scientists, and give them to an appreciative museum. Then you can consider yourself a lay scientist, and one who is making meaningful contributions to understanding the awe-inspiring natural history of this lovely, life-bearing blue planet.

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