Portland Point Quarry is one of the few destinations in New York's
Finger Lakes region where you won't need your watercolors. People do
not come here to admire the blue waters of a lake, a dramatic gorge,
or splendid autumn foliage. No, Portland Point offers nothing more
than an embankment of loose shale with as much allure as an
Yet for many, this gray landscape is an ideal hunting ground.
"In the next hour you will find about six different species of
fossils," announces Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological
Research Institution (PRI) in nearby Ithaca.
Like many in his field, Dr. Allmon is catering to the public's
newfound interest in fossil hunting. "It started even before what we
call that movie," says museum scientist Sally Shelton, referring to
"Jurassic Park." "But after that, it has certainly skyrocketed,"
adds Ms. Shelton, a manager for the collections program at the
National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
PRI field trips are increasingly popular (they run from May to
September, attracting more than 250 participants), and enrollments in
the Denver Museum of Natural History Paleontology Certificate program
have also steadily risen since the program began in 1990. Fossil
hunting has also gone commercial, particularly in the wake of the
highly publicized 1997 sale of a T-Rex skeleton to Chicago's Field
Museum of Natural History, for close to $8.4 million.
Educating the public
In response, PRI and other institutions around the country have
stepped up efforts to educate the public - to ensure that amateur
paleontologists go about collecting fossils in a manner that enhances
"What's fascinating about it is the age of these things," says
Robert Ploss, a retired science teacher who goes on frequent field
trips through PRI.
Armed with a rock hammer, old kitchen knives, a pry bar, and a
stash of paper lunch bags, Mr. Ploss has explored various parts of
New York State and traveled as far as the Chesapeake Bay, where he
found fossil shark teeth and ancient whale bones. He often takes a
grandson along because, he says, "It gets children interested in
science, gets them to start understanding their home, the earth."
Ploss donates any interesting finds to PRI.
"It's not like stamp collecting," Shelton stresses. "People who
hunt for fossils want to be part of the science, part of the team."
The first step is to go out hunting. At Portland Point, for
example, one gray chip looks pretty much like another, until fossil
hunters notice ripples too regular to have occurred naturally. This
is when they realize what they are holding is the mid-section of a
trilobite, an extinct marine animal that thrived during the Devonian
epoch some 380 million years ago.
Thanks to events 10 to 15 million years ago, such fossils are easy
to find in the Finger Lakes area.
"Glaciers are just like undergraduates," Allmon explains. "They
follow the path of least resistance." So time after time, they crept
down river beds and "bulldozed out all the rock" and with it all
traces of later inhabitants including dinosaurs.
On the upside, however, they exposed rock that is "particularly
fossiliferous," says Bryan Isacks, who chairs the Geology Department
at Cornell University in Ithaca. …