GMS     The Georgia Mineral Society, Inc.
4138 Steve Reynolds Boulevard
Norcross, GA 30093-3059

"Trading Fossils"

Mike Bruggeman


"How to swap your extras for someone else's extras."

Everyone has their favorite fossil species, and can't have too many of them. This is the one that drives you to spend an extra hour at a site looking for just one more, even though you have dozens of them at home. Then there are all the other fossils you find while looking for your favorite - you pick them up anyway, put them in a bag, and store them somewhere when you get home. Sometimes you will pick out a few nice examples of each species to have as a reference collection from that site. But what can you do with all the extra fossils?

Trade them!

Trading fossils is simply a great idea. For the price of postage, you get fabulous fossils for specimens that you were probably going to throw away. And you learn more about the species that you collect.

The next time you collect a nice example of a common Alabama brachiopod, think of it as a nice brach from England, or Germany, or Cincinnati. There are LOTS of collectors all over the country - all over the world - who would love to swap something you would really like for that lowly Alabama brachiopod. Now just follow these simple guidelines and you will be on your way to expanding your collection -and your mind! Once you decide to keep that extra brach, you have already completed step 1!

STEP 1) Keep your spares.

STEP 2) Label everything. “If it's worth picking up, it's worth a label.” Step 1 means nothing without Step 2. Nobody wants a fossil without an accurate locality label. Start with an accurate notation of the site on a map, and find out the geologic age (and formation if possible). Local collectors, club members, or the friendly folks at your town's University or Museum are the best source of this information. Now you have a bucket of dirty, unidentified fossils with a label like this:

Road cut on US 27 N. of Lumpkin, GA
Cretaceous, Ripley formation

STEP 3) Clean your specimens. Make sure you work with only one locality at a time, to avoid accidental species mixing. At this time, usually nothing more than a careful, gentle rinse with water and a soft toothbrush is needed to remove dirt and loose matrix. Set out all the specimens to dry on a big piece of cardboard on a ping pong table or similar flat surface in your rock room. Admire your work. Imagine an ancient sea floor populated with this interesting assemblage. Show them to someone in your family. Say “look what I found.”

STEP 4) Sort by species. Start by sorting into major groups, like brachiopods, trilobites, shark teeth, etc. Then break these groups into groups of species, or what looks like species to you. This is a good time to start picking out your reference collection - one to a few of the best examples of each species. It is now apparent that some sort of storage solution is needed. You will need some way to keep the specimens of a species together, but separate from the other species. Also, it's a good idea to keep everything from a particular locality associated. And your reference collection needs to be kept separate from the other specimens.

STEP 5) Storage. For many fossils, small ziplock bags are the solution. Use sandwich size or smaller ones which can be purchased from flea markets or by mail. Specimens that can be bagged together without damage are some shark and ray teeth, hard-rock paleozoic fossils such as brachiopods, and most stream-collected vertebrate fossils. More fragile types of fossils, such as Cenozoic mollusks, must be stored in shallow cardboard boxes to prevent damage. These small unit trays can be purchased from supply houses or made from index cards or light cardboard. Groups of species (in boxes or bags) can be kept together in flat boxes such as soft drink flats. You can modify another flat to make a lid and stack these boxes to save space. Each species in the reference collection should be kept in its own unit tray, and these can be stored in flat cardboard boxes or in cabinets with shallow drawers. IMPORTANT: Make sure every separate unit tray and bag has its own locality label!

STEP 6) Species Identification. The idea here is to identify your reference collection and then add the species names to the fossils in storage (your trade stock). The proper format is: Genus species Author, for example: Exogyra costata Say. You will also want to include a higher taxon on the label (Phylum, Order, or Class). The final label now looks something like this:

Exogyra costata Say
Cretaceous : Ripley formation
Roadcut on US 27 N. of Lumpkin, GA
collected by Joe Rocksalot

The easiest way to identify your fossils is to compare them with specimens that have already been identified. Try asking other collectors who have been to the locality. Most fossil folks will be glad to share this kind of information and are happy to be able to show their fossils to someone else. You may also be able to get help from the staff at the local University Geology Department or Natural History Museum. The best method, although the most difficult, is by figuring out what you’ve got on your own. Fossil identification publications are not easy to find or use. It’s not like using a Peterson’s Field Guide to identify a bird - there are a lot more kinds of fossils than birds, and you are often trying to identify incomplete specimens. But the rewards for digging out this information yourself are great:
  • you will learn more about paleontology
  • you will learn more about your collecting area and its formations
  • you will find out that fossil identification publications are your best source for new localities
  • other people will ask you to help them identify their fossils!
So where are these publications hiding?

STEP 7) Literature Search. Some “popular” guides can help, and have lots of useful general information. The best single book for identifying invertebrate fossils in the U.S. is still Shimer and Shrock’s Index Fossils of North America (available at The State Geologic Surveys have some of the best technical fossil ID guides at very reasonable (cheap!) prices. Just write for a free list of publications. The most important documents are hidden away in obscure paleontology journals that can be found in the libraries of some large universities. If this is all new and strange to you, don’t get discouraged, get excited! The more you learn about the fossils you have collected, the more you will appreciate how special they are. Some people find the search and collection of paleontology literature to be as interesting as finding the fossils!

STEP 8) Database. Once you have gotten your fossils identified and labeled, you will need some way to organize this information. A good place to start is with 3X5 index cards. For each species from a particular formation, prepare a card with the species name at the top. You can use a locality code instead of printing out all the locality information on each card. You may want to include a note about the reference used to identify the species. And note whether you have any extras of this species to trade. The cards can be stored in a number of ways: Alphabetically, by higher taxonomic group (clams, snails, trilobites, etc.), or by locality. As your card collection grows, you may want to transfer this data to a computer database (Microsoft’s Access is a good one). With your fossil data in a computer database, you will be able to quickly print labels and species lists.

STEP 9) Find a Trader. Nothing can beat the internet as a source for finding trading partners. But before there was an internet, there was still a lot of fossil trading going on. Alternatives for internet trading are:

  • Club members - people you know. They generally have a lot of the same material that you have because you’re likely to be collecting the same places, but they may have some species you need to round out your local collection. They may also have fossils collected from places you haven’t had access to. A small scale fossil swap meet is an effective way to see what your friends have to offer.

  • Members of other clubs - people you meet while on a collecting trip may have an interest in trading. The multi-club trips arranged by the Dixie Mineral Council are good opportunities to meet people with similar interests.

  • Join M.A.P.S. - the Mid- America Paleontological Association. A catalog of members is published each year with detailed information about their willingness to trade and what they have to swap.

All of these sources pale to the magnitude of what’s available online. Here is a partial list of current, active trade sites, and more are popping up all the time.

Bob's Rock Shop Rock Trader Classified Advertisements

Fossil Collector contact list


Fossils for Trade

Steve Holley's Web Site

Orerockon's trade list

Mariah's trade page

Fossil Collector Forum

Richie's Rocks

Revolver Jaw - Shark Teeth Trades


Sometimes fossil dealers will trade with collectors, although they may not advertise this on their web sites. If you have a good locality for collecting a lot of one or two rare species, it may be worth an inquiry by email to a dealer. Here’s a partial list of Fossil Dealer sites:

Fossil Dealers Web Ring;list

Fossils Inc


Famous Fossils

Palaeo Jo's

Antiquarian Fossils

Paleo Place

Primitive Worlds -Silurian Fossils

Fossil Fanatics

Glenn's Fossils

The Natural Canvas - Fossils

Canada Fossils

MinMarket Dealers List

D&D Fossils

STEP 10) First Contact. So you have a few (dozen - hundred) labeled species to trade, and you have located a posting from someone who may be interested in a swap. The best way to make a first contact is by email. It’s quick, and you have a written record of what’s been said (in case you’re trying to trade with more than one person - it can get confusing). Snail mail can be discouraging if it takes a long time for the other party to write back. Phone calls have some drawbacks - long distance calls are expensive, and there isn’t a written record in case you forget parts of the conversation. And there is the possibility that when they get your number, they will call you too often or at inopportune times.

Most people are very particular about what kinds of fossils they are trading for - some only want shark teeth, some are interested only in brachiopods, etc. Ideally, you will want to exchange lists of the species you each have to trade (easy to do with email). The first contact is also the best time to find out if they are expecting a 1 for 1 trade, or if they are more interested in trading several common species for one rare or unusual species. Make it clear that if either party is not happy with the exchange, they can return the specimens with no hard feelings (this rarely happens).

STEP 11) First Trade. The first set of fossils should be small, no more than twenty or so species. It is usually up to the person who answers the posting, not the poster, to send the first box. You want to pack each species in a small ziplock bag, and try to include more than one specimen of each species (up to 6). Pick good quality specimens, ones you would be happy to get. Multiple specimens should each be wrapped in a small piece of paper towel and placed together in the bag with a label. Fragile species can be bagged separately, and the bag placed into a plastic pill bottle for protection. Use plenty of styrofoam nuggets when packing the mailing box. When shipping overseas, sending by US Mail is a lot easier (less paperwork) than UPS. The custom form is small and simple and you should write this message on it: “Paleozoic rock specimens for study - no value”. Also fill the amount in the value _____space as $0.00 - this keeps your trading partner from having to pay any fees or tax on the package.

STEP 12) Evaluate First Trade. As you unpack your first return package, answer these questions:

  • have the specimens been wrapped properly?
  • is there any damage to the fossils?
  • is the locality information complete?
  • have the species been identified correctly?
  • is this the kind of material you were expecting in return for yours?
  • do you feel like you were ripped off?

Most of the time you will be thrilled with what you get, partially because you didn’t really give up anything that valuable, and partly because you will be seeing fossil species that you have never seen before.

STEP 13) Future Trades. If you’re happy with the first trade, you might want to try another with the same person. Sometimes hundreds of species can change hands to the delight of both traders. You may want to exchange some fossil literature as well, especially with foreign traders. Eventually one of you will run out of items of interest to the other, so keep checking the trade sites for new prospects. Once you feel comfortable with the trading process, you will find that there is no better way to improve your fossil collection.


Copyright © Georgia Mineral Society, Inc.