You can find dinosaurs in your backyard

There are dinosaur fossils, hundreds of millions of years old, on the side of the road in New Jersey. You just have to stomp around in the mud for a while to find them. This is a story about our day with Ralph and finding two mosasaur teeth.

In this little stream bed, an hour outside of New York City by car along the Garden State Parkway, there are dinosaurs in the mud.

Cindy and I spent a day with a guy named Ralph Johnson, of the Monmouth Amateur Paleontological Society. We first met Ralph this summer during a dig in Bighorn Basin, through an Experiment project that’s been running for two years through the New Jersey State Museum.

Cindy and I consider ourselves ‘normal’ scientists, but we’ve both always been fascinated with paleontology. Mainly because paleontologists are a special kind of crazy, and because there’s so much about paleo that we personally do not understand. Because of this, we always jump at the chance to get hands-on with some real fossil digging. Click here to see some pictures of our first ever Bighorn Basin Dig.

When we first met Ralph, he showed us how to prospect for new bones in Wyoming. Somehow after the trip, Cindy and Ralph stayed in touch and he promised to show us around the local fossil sites. Cindy and Ralph coordinated on a date, and I got to tag along.

It was late summer and foggy, and in the morning we took a train out towards Asbury Park in north Monmouth County.

*Not at that precise place, but somewhere around there

After getting off the train, we met Ralph somewhere near Little Silver and headed towards his house. Ralph was one of the original founding members of the Monmouth Amateur Paleo Society (M.A.P.S.), a volunteer organization that leads dig trips and manages a huge collection of fossils that’s been gathered by amateur paleontologists over decades.

Ralph’s also got several decades of caving, geology, and paleontology experience. Oftentimes, other academics and scientists will call him up to get advice when it comes to certain species, like in this paper about Mosasaurus, the giant carnivorous swimming lizard that featured in the recent Jurassic Park movie.

Ralph’s been a long-time member in the local paleontology community.
Ralph in his younger days

The entire collection of the thousands of M.A.P.S. specimens lives in Ralph’s house. Specifically, in his basement. He made us swear not to reveal the location of the collection, but here’s just a small snapshot.

Ralph’s specialty is ammonites — like the Pokemon omanyte but real

After spending time learning about the immense fossil collection, we headed out to the site.

The “site” is basically a pull-out next to a busy road before entering what looked like a plain suburban neighborhood. The plan was to leave the car and walk along a small stream bed.

We got out to the stream, and started walking in it. Cindy and I both wore the wrong kind of boots, but after a few minutes of your feet getting soaked, your toes get kinda warm and squishy in a nice way.

As we walked along the stream, you could hear cars passing by on the right, and looking up the hill to the left, you could see houses. Every 30 to 40 feet would be a different house. We were right behind people’s houses, and we had to be extra quiet. Apparently other amateur paleontologists had been at the site before and ticked off the local homeowners. This became apparent after we passed a “No Trespassing” sign. We trudged on anyways, like Indiana Jones getting deeper in the jungle.

This is what the stream looked like.

After what felt like an arbitrary amount of time walking up the stream, Ralph turned around and said “We’re here”. We laid out the only tools we had brought — some flat sieves, a rake, a shovel, and some plastic bags.

The flat mesh shovel-looking things are used to scoop up the silt on the bottom of the stream. Where we were located, layers of old gravel were wearing out of a nearby hill. As the layers wear into the stream, bones and fossils also begin to appear.

Since the fossils are different density than the rocks, they tend to gather on the surface. We used the rake and shovel to remove any really big rocks, and then using the flat sieves, you can filter out the fine dirt.

It’s like panning for gold, only you get old bones and shark teeth.

Can you spot the fossils? This is basically what it looks like each time you scoop up some fresh rocks. Repeat this 100 times.

Within a few minutes, we were finding shark teeth and bones. You can often tell a shark tooth because it’ll have a characteristic long stabby point good for ripping flesh from bones.

These are shark teeth. We got a few ziplock bags full of them.

We asked Ralph about the sharks that lived back then (450 million years), and he estimated these sharks were only 4–5 feet long. I don’t know enough about the geology back then, but apparently it looked something like this.

After an hour, I managed to find something special: a mosasaur tooth. It took Ralph about 10 seconds to identify it as such, and his face lit up. He explained that mosasaur is among the holy grails of paleontologists, and is really rare to find along the east coast. The fact that we found one meant that we had good luck. I was pretty proud of that.

This type of shallow stream bed is ideal of sifting through. You never know what might be sitting right on the top waiting for you.
Fossil hunting requires a lot of patience and good eyesight.
It’s hard avoid getting muddy when walking in mud.

This area produced a lot of shark teeth on our trip, but others have been known to find other species too. We ended up finding some shells from old snails as well as some belemnites, which are the hard caps of mesozoic squid-like cephalopods.

After a few hours, we were done, and as the people who found the fossils, it was our responsibility to tag and label the specimens. Part of being a good paleontologist is documentation. The location, date, condition, weather, all of it is important to log for future researchers who may want to study the fossils.

Some Belemnites and some shells

Fossil hunting in New Jersey is awesome, and you should do it. Get in touch with an amateur paleo group. Join a dig. Study the paleobiology database. Attend your local meetup, like the New York Paleontological Society.

This experience was also a great reminder that this is why we experiment. There’s magic everywhere waiting to be discovered, you just have to be curious and not afraid to poke, prod, and get a little dirty. If you look closely enough, you might find some dinosaurs in your backyard.

Now for the best shot: two mosasaur teeth flanking a shark tooth and a shell.

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