A Hobby For Anyone
When you think of a fossil, you probably picture something ridiculously expensive that is on display in a museum. You may believe those who own fossils are usually paleontologists or people with a large amount of expendable income. However, fossil collecting is a hobby that can be enjoyed by anyone, and many can be purchased for under $100. Authentic, high quality dinosaur and reptile teeth are even available for $50 or less. The keys to finding these items are patience, research, and choosing only reputable sellers.
This article discusses some of the most affordable fossils on the market while teaching you how to make a wise purchase. You will learn the following:
- How to identify a high quality fossil
- How to distinguish trustworthy dealers from less reputable ones
- How to spot a fake or composite fossil
- How to build a sizable collection while staying within your budget
- How to properly handle and care for your fossils
Most Common and Affordable Fossils
As one would expect, the most affordable fossils on the market often are the most common ones. Luckily, these are available in a large variety of forms, including teeth, bones, eggshells, imprint fossils, and complete invertebrate fossils (such as trilobites). Inexpensive fossils can be found from almost every geologic time period, from the Cambrian Period (541 to 485 million years ago) to the Neogene Period (23 to 2.6 million years ago).
The best thing about fossil teeth is that they consist of the actual bone and have not been replaced by minerals from the ground. This makes teeth collecting an especially enjoyable hobby. It is quite fascinating handling a tooth from an animal that has been extinct for millions of years and imagining what that tooth once sliced open. The online market offers affordable teeth from a wide array of animals, such as dinosaurs, marine reptiles, pterosaurs, early amphibians, sharks, and mammals.
Surprisingly, dinosaur and marine reptile teeth are some of the most readily available fossils for purchase. Mosasaurus, Plesiosaurus, Spinosaurus, and Dromaeosaurus (Raptor) teeth are among the most common and inexpensive carnivore teeth from the Cretaceous Period (145 to 66 million years ago). Large Spinosaurus teeth (over 2 to 3 inches in length) are quite common and typically are the cheapest compared to large teeth from other Cretaceous predators. Some of the most inexpensive herbivore teeth from this period come from Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and Edmontosaurus. However, be advised that most teeth from these herbivores are only about 0.5 inch to 1 inch in length.
Pricing Chart For Cretaceous Period Teeth
|Genus||Tooth Size (~1 inch)||Tooth Size (~2 inches)|
If you are looking for fossil teeth that date further back than the Cretaceous Period, you can find many inexpensive ones from the Permian Period (299 to 252 million years ago) or Triassic Period (252 to 201 million years ago). Teeth from these two periods usually cost between $10 and $30 and come from reptiles, amphibians, and sharks (as well as dinosaurs from the Triassic Period). However, the vast majority of these are quite small, at only 0.25 inch in length or smaller. Their small sizes make them difficult to handle, and they should be housed in 1 inch gem jars to prevent them from being lost.
Dinosaur, reptile, amphibian, and mammal bones also are fairly common on the market, and sometimes they are as cheap as $40. They are great options for collectors interested in something larger that is easier to handle and study. Be advised, though, that most bones are not completely original. Most of the bones have gone through a decent amount of permineralization, in which minerals from the ground have replaced original bone material. If you purchase a dinosaur bone for $100 or less, you can expect to find that at least 40% of it is rock.
If you are looking for a dinosaur bone but are on a very tight budget, you may be interested in purchasing an agatized bone. Agatized bones, also known as gembones, are quite inexpensive. A 3.5 inch slab typically costs $15 to $25. Most gembones offered for sale on the fossil market date back to the late Jurassic or Cretaceous Period and come from sauropods (the dinosaur subgroup classified by large size, a long neck, and a four-legged stance).
While gembones contain no original bone and have been completely replaced by silica, they are still interesting to study. Mineral replacement of many gembones has occurred at a sub-cellular level, leaving their internal cell structures completely intact. This means that clear imprints of the cell structures often are present and can be seen with the naked eye. A slab of polished gembone sometimes looks similar to a piece of fossilized sponge and can have a porous attribute. The size of the cells enables paleontologists to determine which type of dinosaur the gembone is derived from. For example, a specimen with very large cells can be identified as belonging to a sauropod.
Gembones vary greatly in appearance and can be very beautiful. They frequently contain agate, quartz, jasper, hematite, iron, pyrite, or marcasite. Both fossil dealers and gemstone dealers sell gembones, offering vibrant, colorful specimens at affordable prices. Be advised that colorful specimens containing high amounts of crystals like agate and hematite will cost more money than a basic slab of plain-looking, yellowish gembone. However, the more expensive gembones still normally just cost around $60 or less.
Dinosaur and bird eggshells are a great option for new fossil collectors. They are very affordable, at only $5 to $20. Fossilized dinosaur eggshells that are offered on the market typically come from raptors and sauropods, and they date back to the Cretaceous Period. Fossilized bird eggshells usually come from Gastornis and other large, flightless birds from the Paleocene Epoch (66 to 56 million years ago) and Eocene Epoch (56 to 34 million years ago). Be advised that these eggshells typically have been replaced by minerals from the ground and contain none of the original eggshell.
Imprint fossils are extremely common on the market and can be found from almost every geological period, from the Cambrian Period to the Neogene Period. Complete imprints, partial imprints, and tracks/footprints are offered by numerous reputable dealers. These imprints come from a large variety of different animals, including arthropods, mollusks, echinoderms, fish, sharks, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds. Plant imprints are also available for those who are interested in studying Earth's ancient flora.
Some of the most affordable imprint fossils are those of Knightia fish from the Eocene Epoch that have been recovered from the Green River Formation in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. They typically cost $15 to $40 and often contain fossilized scales and bone fragments. If you are more interested in invertebrate fossils or something older than Knightia, you can find many inexpensive imprints of brittle stars, shrimp, and crabs. Imprint fossils of some brittle stars only cost $20 to $50 and date back to the Ordovician Period (485 to 444 million years ago) or Cretaceous Period. Imprints of shrimp dating back to the Cretaceous Period often cost $60 or less and are fairly detailed, displaying the legs, antennae, and complete body segments. Pea crab imprints from the Miocene Epoch (23 to 5 million years ago) also are inexpensive, at $40 or less.
Imprint fossils of many plants are quite affordable and come from various time periods. Fossil ferns and horsetails from the Carboniferous Period (359 to 299 million years ago) typically cost $15 to $40. Leaf imprints from plants of the Eocene Epoch can be purchased for $50 or less. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and sometimes are very detailed. Small Dawn Redwood fossils are some of the most inexpensive imprints. They only cost $5 to $10 and date back to the Oligocene Epoch (34 to 23 million years ago).
Complete Invertebrate Fossils
The online market offers a wide selection of complete invertebrate fossils, including sand dollars, brachiopods, lobsters, crabs, and trilobites. Brachiopods and trilobites are the most common and inexpensive invertebrates. Many different types of brachiopods only cost $5 to $20 and date from the Silurian Period to the Cretaceous Period. Trilobite fossils often cost $5 to $80 and date from the Cambrian Period to the Devonian Period (419 to 359 million years ago). They frequently are well detailed and come from quarries in New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Canada, Russia, and Morocco. Some of the most affordable trilobites are Reedops, Crotalocephalina, Morocops, Paralejurus, Gerastos, and Calymene. Be advised that the vast majority of spiny trilobite species are quite expensive, at $400 to $9,000.
Identifying High Quality Fossils
There are a few factors to consider when determining whether or not a fossil is high quality. Luckily, the process of identifying high quality specimens is quite easy and does not require any special tools. Quality identification can even be done successfully without seeing the fossil in person. Just be sure the dealer has provided clear photos of both sides of the fossil (photos that show the specimen from multiple angles are best, though).
The following is a list of factors to consider before purchasing a fossil, especially from an online dealer who is new to the trade.
1. Quality of Enamel (For Fossil Teeth)
The enamel (outermost layer of the tooth) is one of the most important parts of the tooth in terms of quality grading. The enamel on a Grade A tooth will be almost completely intact from base to tip. It will also contain minimal cracks or chips and be smooth to the touch.
It is important to note that most teeth have not retained their original enamel color. Rather than being white in coloration, the vast majority of fossil teeth on the market will be brown, black, grey, or yellow. This is due to minerals from the ground that the teeth have absorbed over the millennia.
2. Quality of Serrations (For Fossil Teeth, and If Serrations Are Present)
The quality of a tooth's serrations are also important in terms of value. The serrations on a Grade A tooth will be mostly intact and contain little wear.
Be advised that teeth from many animals do not contain serrations. They are mainly present on carnivore teeth and were used to saw through flesh and bone. Serrated teeth were a feature of most carnivorous dinosaurs (excluding Spinosaurus), as well as some reptiles and sharks. A small number of mammals and herbivorous dinosaurs also possessed serrated teeth, including Basilosaurus, a massive, predatory whale from the Eocene Epoch, and Ankylosaurus, an armor-plated dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period.
3. Completeness of Fossil
Before purchasing a fossil, you should also consider how much of it is still intact and original. Some specimens on the market are only 2 or 3 inch fragments that contain few defining characteristics. When it comes to teeth, many have extensive feeding wear to their tip or are missing that entire section. Others are missing their whole base section or both the base and tip.
Fossil teeth that are 100% complete (meaning they consist of the entire tooth and root) are sometimes offered for sale. They generally are much rarer and more expensive than ones that are missing their root. If you are interested in purchasing a fully rooted specimen, be prepared to spend at least $300 for most dinosaur and reptile teeth. However, some rooted mammal teeth are much less expensive. Cave bear teeth are some of the most affordable rooted specimens, at $50 to $140.
When it comes to bones, completeness is determined not only by how much of the bone is intact but also by the amount of permineralization it has undergone. Bones that have experienced a significant amount of permineralization often are considered to be incomplete and low quality even if they are intact, and they are much less valuable than those that contain most of their original bone material.
4. Amount of Repair and/or Restoration
The amount of repair and/or restoration that a fossil has undergone will also impact its value. Fossils with an extensive amount of repair and restoration are considered to be lower quality and less valuable than those that have not been heavily restored.
Repair work involves reattaching broken pieces on a specimen or filling in any fractures to prevent it from splitting. Strong adhesives are applied to the damaged areas and keep the fossil stable as long as it is handled with care. Restoration is the process of reinstating a fossil's original appearance (or as best as possible). This involves painting over sections that have lost their original color or applying fillers to any dents.
Many fossils that are available on the market have been repaired or restored to some degree. However, this does not mean that it is difficult to find high quality, unrestored specimens. Smaller fossils often have little to no repair or restoration, as their small sizes make them less prone to breakage during excavation. Teeth that are 1 inch long or less are commonly sold without any restoration, and many bones that are 1 to 3 inches in length have undergone minimal restoration. Some small trilobites and other invertebrates are also available in their original physical states. Larger fossils are sometimes offered for sale with no restoration as well. They range from 3 inch Spinosaurus teeth to 7 inch dinosaur footprints.
While some fossils do not require any repair or restoration, all fossils require preparation after they have been recovered from the ground. Preparation differs from repair and restoration in that it does not involve any adhesives, paints, or fillers. The purpose of preparation is simply to remove the matrix (fine-grained rock) from the fossil's surface. The process typically takes hours or days to complete and must be done with great care in order to avoid damaging the specimen. However, many fossils are quite unstable and must be left with part of their matrix intact to prevent them from crumbling.
Finding Trustworthy Dealers
Some people are interested in taking up fossil collecting as a hobby but are not sure where to start. They often don't know which dealers to trust and how to find a reputable one who will not overcharge them or misidentify the specimens they are selling. Fortunately, there are quite a few trustworthy dealers to choose from, and most of them have websites where you can make a purchase. Many sellers also offer international shipping, which is great for buyers who live in a country where fossil shops are scarce or non-existent.
The key to finding trustworthy dealers is diligence. You should never shop in a hurry and settle on the first fossil dealer you notice unless you are completely certain of their reputability. As a general rule of thumb, always learn a bit about the seller before purchasing an item from them. You can do so by visiting the "About Us" page on their site or by reading their profile. Oftentimes, their "About Us" page or profile will mention how long they have been in business. Dealers who have been selling fossils for many years tend to be more trustworthy than those who have only been in business for a matter of months. Well established dealers will have extensive knowledge of the specimens they are selling and often are more passionate about the business. They also are educated on proper fossil grading and pricing, which can prevent buyers from being overcharged.
While researching a seller, you may find that they are a member of the AAPS (Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences). This is further proof of their reputability and indicates that they support ethical collecting practices. It is also likely that they work directly with paleontologists and museum curators. They may purchase their fossils from the paleontologists who find them or even have their own team of paleontologists. A small number of online dealers also operate their own labs where they prepare the specimens before placing them on the market.
Be advised that some sellers who work closely with paleontologists are not AAPS members. The seller's website typically will mention if they purchase a lot of their fossils from these scientists. If they do not specify where or how they acquire their specimens, feel free to contact them. A trustworthy dealer will have no problem responding to your inquiry and providing some information about the items they offer. When possible, try to obtain fossils directly from a paleontologist yourself, as they often will charge lower prices for their finds.
Once you have familiarized yourself with a dealer, take a look at their sales page. Each fossil should be described in thorough detail. The dealer should provide the genus/species of animal or plant, its age, the location in which it was found, and its size. A reputable seller usually will include a specimen's condition in the item description as well. They will mention whether or not the fossil has had any repair or restoration and what was done if restoration was required. Be sure they also have provided clear photos that show both sides of the specimen (photos that show the fossil from multiple angles are best though). If the pictures are blurry and poor quality, don't be afraid to ask the dealer if they can post clearer ones. Those who are not willing to provide more photos may be deceitful and worth avoiding.
Lastly, always educate yourself on the seller's return policy before purchasing an item. You don't want to end up paying $80 for a fossil that gets lost or damaged and cannot be returned. While it is true that unscrupulous sellers often do not accept returns, there also are a handful of trustworthy ones who will not accept returns either. Some of them simply want to avoid the possibility of damage to their specimens from return shipments. If you come across a dealer with a "no returns" policy, act with caution and don't purchase a fossil from them unless you are confident of their reputability.
Spotting Fake or Composite Fossils
The number of fake fossils on the market has increased significantly in the past 20 years, so it is important to spend a bit of time examining the fossil you are interested in before purchasing it. Trilobites are some of the most commonly faked fossils, and many of them come from Morocco or China. These fakes can usually be identified without the use of special tools, though. One simple way to determine whether or not a trilobite is fake is by looking at its body segments. An authentic specimen will have straight, symmetrical body segments.
A fake trilobite can sometimes be spotted by its size as well. Large specimens that range from 10 to 16 inches in length are rare and often faked, while most specimens that are 1 to 2 inches long are much more likely to be authentic. Large Paradoxides trilobites from the Cambrian Period of Morocco are highly susceptible to fakery due to their popularity and value, so these should only be purchased from the most reputable dealers.
Another way to determine a trilobite's authenticity is by examining its eyes and other structures. Real specimens usually possess detailed structures and ornamentations, while some fake trilobites have simple designs with little detail. Trilobites with finely detailed eye lenses are quite difficult to fake and can be confidently labeled as authentic. However, be advised that many real trilobite fossils do not possess detailed lenses, so it is important not to focus solely on their eyes when attempting to authenticate them.
Examining a trilobite's exoskeleton and matrix for holes is also important to the authentication process. The presence of tiny holes in the exoskeleton or matrix is a strong indicator of a fake fossil. Many fake trilobites are made of resin, and holes are often produced due to bubbles bursting when the resin is curing. Although these holes are only about half a millimeter in diameter, they can still be seen without the use of a magnifying glass and are noticeable in photos.
Another thing to be wary of is different trilobite species that are assembled on the same matrix slab. Unnatural assemblages of Moroccan trilobites are often sold online and at fossil shows. Many times, the species that are on the same matrix together are not even from the same time period. Some of these fakes are completely made of resin or plaster, while others actually contain parts from real trilobites, orthoceras, and other invertebrates. Producers of these fake fossils sometimes combine parts from different animals to trick the buyer into believing they are purchasing an assemblage of very rare and valuable trilobites. Fake trilobites that have been painted onto the surface of a matrix are also still being offered on the market but are less common than the other types of fakes.
Many seasoned collectors also test trilobites for authenticity by biting them with their front teeth (I have performed this test myself and find it helpful). The bite test utilizes the sensitive nerves in your teeth and is safe for both the fossil and yourself. Fakes that are made of resin or plaster will typically feel soft to the bite in comparison to authentic specimens. While a fake trilobite may feel like a piece of hard plastic against your teeth, a real trilobite will feel as strong as stone (since authentic specimens truly are made of stone). Be advised that only slight pressure is needed to perform this test successfully, though.
Other fossils that are commonly faked are the Eocene fish (such as Knightia) of the Green River Formation in Wyoming. This is quite surprising, considering the fact that authentic specimens are abundant and cheap. Most fake fossils of these fish are simply images painted onto the surfaces of shale slabs, making them easy to identify as fakes. Others are authentic and just have been enhanced by paint. Fake seahorse fossils are sometimes offered for sale as well, and they have been painted onto the matrix like most fake Knightia fish. These fake seahorses are typically displayed with all of their soft body parts intact and looking too perfect to be real. Rare arthropods like giant spiders are also known to be faked and should be purchased with extreme caution. They are produced by combining parts from authentic fossil crayfish.
Large quantities of fake reptile, dinosaur, and bird fossils are being produced in China and sold throughout the world as well. They are frequently sold as complete specimens with little to no flaws and have been painted rich, dark colors to distinguish them from the matrix. Many of the fakes are made entirely of resin or plaster. Others contain small amounts of authentic bone material from the species they have been associated with or large amounts of bone material from various animal species. If you are determined to add a complete, nearly flawless specimen to your collection, be sure that you purchase it from an experienced dealer who is well established and only works with trustworthy suppliers.
Fossilized eggshells, individual bones, and teeth are not nearly as susceptible to fakery as the fossil types previously mentioned in this article. However, some dealers intentionally misclassify the teeth and bones they are selling in order to make a larger profit. They may advise that a tooth or bone they are offering for sale came from a vary rare dinosaur species when it actually came from a more common species instead. For example, unscrupulous dealers are frequently known to claim that their Dromaeosaurus teeth are those of Deltadromeus, as Deltadromeus teeth are much rarer and more valuable than those belonging to Dromaeosaurus. As a general rule of thumb, always consider the size of the tooth before believing the seller's claim and purchasing it. Dromaeosaurus teeth are smaller than Deltadromeus teeth, at less than 1 inch in length. Authentic, unbroken Deltadromeus teeth average 1.5 inches in length and are rarely less than 1 inch long.
Dishonest dealers are sometimes known to sell composite teeth as well. Composite teeth are created by gluing together sections from two different teeth. The sections each come from authentic specimens that are the same species as one another. Some dealers will claim that the composite teeth they are selling are naturally large, intact specimens from a single animal, and they will attempt to charge potential buyers much more than what the teeth are even worth. Composite teeth can be a bit difficult for the untrained eye to spot. The best way to identify one is by focusing your attention on the central section of the tooth. You should notice a slight increase in width that looks unnatural, and a very thin line may be visible where the two sections were glued together.
Building a Sizable Collection While Staying Within Your Budget
Now that you have some knowledge regarding the identification of fake and composite fossils, you can set your budget and start building a collection. If your budget is between $60 and $100, I recommend collecting small fossils like Permian and Triassic Period teeth. As a reminder, many reptile, amphibian, dinosaur, and shark teeth from these periods only cost $10 to $30. This means that you can build a reasonable starter collection for a surprisingly low amount of money. You can also add a bit of variety to your collection by purchasing a $5 to $15 trilobite fossil, dinosaur eggshell, gembone, Mosasaur tooth, or Small Dawn Redwood imprint.
Fossil sets are another great way to add variety to your collection for a reasonable price. Numerous dealers sell them, and a set of 24 fossils typically costs between $60 and $80. Sets containing 6 specimens for $15 to $25 are also available if you are on a tight budget. Some fossils you can expect to find in these sets are Spinosaurus teeth, Mosasaur teeth, Otodus shark teeth, dinosaur bone fragments, trilobites, ammonites, brachiopods, horn corals, and petrified wood. Be advised that the fossils are not very large (a Spinosaurus tooth from one of these sets is usually less than 2 inches long), but the quality of each specimen is fairly nice. Some dealers also sell small vials of teeth and bone fragments for only $12 to $20. The vials often contain fossils from over 10 different animal species dating back to the Permian and Triassic periods.
Proper Fossil Handling and Care
Once you receive your fossils, be sure to handle them with great care to prevent the possibility of damaging or losing them. Be careful not to drop them or bang them into anything. I recommend that small fossils (around 0.25 inch or less) be kept in a 1 inch gem jar and not removed very often, as their small sizes make them quite easy to lose. Always supervise children anytime you allow them to handle your fossils. Please note that most fossils can be handled safely without gloves as long as your hands are clean, dry, and free of any chemicals (perfumes, lotions, etc.). However, feel free to use gloves if you are not comfortable touching them with your bare hands. Specimens that should be handled with gloves are carbon plant fossils and shell clusters from crumbly carbonate sediments.
It is also important that you avoid exposing your fossils to extreme heat or cold. Always store or display them in areas that are not easily accessible to children and pets as well. If you choose to keep your fossils in a glass top display case (such as a Riker Mount), be sure they are secured properly inside the case so they don't rattle against the glass and get damaged. You can secure them in place by lining the bottom of the case with a thick layer of fiber-fill or foam padding. Avoid over stuffing the case, as you do not want your fossils to be pressing hard against the glass. I also recommend packing your fossils in a thick layer of bubble wrap before you transport them anywhere.
- Paleontica Foundation
The Paleontica foundation aims to build information about geology and fossils and make it available to the general public. The foundation also provides the opportunity to discuss and build networks around paleontology and related topics.
- The Virtual Fossil Museum
Fossils across geological time presented in multiple contexts of geological history, the tree of life, paleobiology, and evolution. The Virtual Fossil Museum is an educational resource providing an ever-growing, extensive collection of fossil images.
FossilEra is one of the largest retailers of authentic fossil and mineral specimens in the world. In the past seven years, they have shipped over 90k orders to over 40k customers in over 100 different countries.
- Time Vault Gallery
For over two decades, Time Vault Gallery has been one of the world's largest and most diversified suppliers of the finest fossils and artifacts for sale. Trusted by museum institutions, academia, and advanced private collectors throughout the world.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Lisa Pizzoferrato