1. What are the rules concerning fossil collection in North Carolina?

Before collecting fossils in North Carolina (or elsewhere, including other states in the USA and foreign countries), you should familiarize yourself with the laws concerning fossil collecting. In some countries, it is illegal to collect, purchase, and/or export fossils under any circumstances. In the USA, the legality of fossil collection depends on the type of fossil and on land ownership. Land is either publicly or privately held, and public land is either municipal, state, or federal (including federal land held in trust). Also, be aware that the provisions described here do not apply to fossils or artifacts found at archaeological sites, which are governed by different laws.

Privately owned land: Fossils on private land are the property of the landowner. Access is at the discretion of the landowner, and any fossil collection on private land requires landowner approval.

Publicly owned state or municipal land: In North Carolina, no license or permit is currently required to collect fossils on state or municipal public land. Other states may require permits or purchase of a license for fossil collection; check local regulations before collecting fossils out-of-state.

Rivers and Beaches: Under the NC public trust doctrine, navigable rivers and beaches* up to the high tide mark are considered public land and are freely accessible for fossil hunting. This means that if you find a fossil on the beach or in a riverbed, it is legal for you to keep it. We strongly encourage the donation of any scientifically important specimens to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

  • *Exceptions:
  • Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base: Access is restricted to military and Department of Defense personnel only.
  • National Seashores: See below.

Publicly owned Federal Land: Under the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA), fossil collection without a permit is not allowed on federal lands except for the casual collecting of common invertebrate and plant fossils in designated areas. Invertebrates include animals without a backbone, such as fossil shells and coral. Sharks’ teeth and other fish fossils, although sometimes common, are the remains of vertebrate animals and require a permit to be collected on federal land. According to the PRPA, the term ‘casual collecting’ refers to the collection of a reasonable amount of common invertebrate and/or plant paleontological resources for non-commercial personal use, either by surface collection or the use of non-powered hand tools that result in only negligible disturbance to the Earth's surface and other resources. Answers to common questions about the PRPA can be found at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s website.

The PRPA applies to federally administered lands within the state of North Carolina, including land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, Fish and Wildlife Service/Wilderness, Forest Service, National Park Service/Wilderness, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Transportation. A map is available for you to identify Federal Lands in North Carolina. Casual collection of invertebrates and plant fossils is allowed on most lands in the National Forest System as well as on NC’s two National Seashores (Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout), but it is your responsibility to check with staff in federally managed areas to ensure fossil collection is permitted. Also, although casual collection is permitted, collectors should note that it is illegal to sell fossils collected from National Forest System lands.

Federal Land held in trust: Fossil collection on land managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not regulated by the PRPA. Prior approval to collect is required.

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2. What should I do if I find a fossil?

Loose fossils such as isolated sharks’ teeth or shells can generally be collected as-is. If you discover a specimen that you would like to have identified, you may contact our Research Curator in Paleontology, Dr. Christian Kammerer (christian.kammerer@naturalsciences.org). If your specimen turns out to be of scientific importance, please consider donating it to our museum. Specimens donated by amateur collectors make up a large portion of our scientific collections and are a vital part of research into North Carolina’s paleontological history.

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3. What specimens are of scientific importance?

Specimens of particular scientific importance include fossils that are poorly represented or absent in our collections. Some examples include crabs, reptiles, dinosaurs including birds, and mammals. Also of interest are exceptionally preserved or unusual (e.g. pathological) representatives of more common fossils such as mollusks, echinoderms, and fish.

If you discover fossils still embedded in the rock, or find a skull or skeleton in articulation, please contact our Research Curator in Paleontology, Dr. Christian Kammerer (christian.kammerer@naturalsciences.org). Such specimens are often delicate and can be easily damaged during excavation, so their collection is best left to experienced paleontologists.

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4. What information is important to record to be scientifically useful?

When you collect a fossil, always record the important data associated with its discovery: where and when it was collected (as precisely as possible) and ideally also its geological context. If you don’t know the detailed geology of the site, try to record at least some information on the sediment surrounding the fossil (such as “loose sand” or “mudstone”) and/or photograph it in situ (that is, in the spot it was discovered). These data are crucial to research on fossils—without contextual information, fossil specimens are just curios, not useful contributions to the scientific record. Even if you are collecting fossils for a personal collection at home, it is important to record these data: they are both helpful for organizing your collection, and if at some point in the future you or your heirs decide to donate your collection to a museum, they are vital for making the collection scientifically useful.

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5. What happens to fossils donated to the museum?

When a fossil is donated to our museum, our paleontologists first evaluate whether the associated data are complete enough to be included in the scientific collection. As noted above, specimens without provenance data are, for the most part, not scientifically useful. Scientifically important specimens with good associated data are then identified, accessioned into our collections database, and placed in custom-made archival storage, where they will be protected for generations to come. Our own scientists and visiting scientists from all over the world regularly examine our research collections looking for important new (or old!) data. As new scientific techniques, technologies, and questions arise over time, scientists will return to these same specimens to examine them for new information. Sometimes the most important new discoveries are made on specimens that have been protected in museum collections for decades. Research on donated specimens may take a long time to complete, but the important thing is that the data is preserved for future scientists to use.

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6. Why isn’t my fossil on display?

A number of our paleontology exhibits contain specimens donated by amateur collectors. However, only a tiny fraction of our total collections (less than 1%) are on display at any one time. The remainder of the fossils are kept carefully organized and maintained in behind-the-scenes archival cabinets, where they are available for study by scientists from around the world. Putting every one of the thousands of fossil clam shells in our collection on display would be excessive (and probably boring for all but the most clam-obsessed of visitors), but as part of the scientific collection, this sample provides important information on variation in species and ecosystems through time. These specimens are part of the permanent scientific record: once in the museum, they are accessible for study in perpetuity. Indeed, new discoveries are regularly made on specimens that have been in the museum for many years!

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