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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Illustration of ancient flora
Dave Hacker

Question: How old were you when you started collecting fossils, and what got you hooked?

Answer: I've always been interested in fossils, rocks, and science in general, but wouldn't describe myself as a fossil collector. I became particularly interested in the fossils of the Washington, D.C. area about six years ago, after my kids attended a Dinosaur Camp. I was lucky enough to find a rare partial foot bone from a meat-eating dinosaur on one of my first visits to an Early Cretaceous site in Maryland. That's what really hooked me.

Question: What do you enjoy most about collecting fossils?

Answer: This is hard to describe, but I enjoy getting outside, away from all the normal hustle and bustle of daily life, and letting my mind clear so that I can notice the subtle differences in color and texture between the fossils and everything else. I also enjoy the suspense of not knowing what the next find will be, or when it will come.

Question: How do you decide what type of fossils to look for, and where to look for them?

Answer: I mostly look for fossils in terrestrial deposits from the Early Cretaceous Period in Maryland, because they are close to home and it is the type of site that I have developed an eye for. These fossils occur in outcrops of the Arundel Clay, which is part of the Potomac Group geological formation.

Question: How did you learn how to identify what you find?

Answer: Reading books, looking at scientific articles and websites. Also, time, experience and patient mentors.

Question: What is the most exciting fossil you have found?

Answer: The most exciting was probably that first dinosaur foot bone. An Early Cretaceous mammal jaw fragment might turn out to be the most important. But my favorites would have to be the nodosaur tooth with a complete root that I found, which could be one of the largest armored dinosaur teeth ever found anywhere in the world, or the freshwater shark coprolite with fish vertebra inclusions that I just found last weekend.

Question: Why did you decide to donate fossils to the Smithsonian?

Answer: I have always felt privileged to be allowed to search for fossils at important sites and believe that the most significant fossils should be made available for study to expand scientific knowledge. What good would it do leave them on my mantle, collecting dust? Besides, there's nothing quite like hearing a curator from a major museum say "We don't have one of those."

Question: Can you give any advice to people who want to go fossil hunting for the first time?

Answer: Go with an organized group or to a scheduled event, such as a local fossil club field trip, a summer fossil camp, or a museum-sponsored program, so that you can learn from people with experience. Another great option for people in the Washington, D.C. area is to visit the new Dinosaur Park in Laurel, Maryland, where I am a volunteer. Be patient and spend your time looking, not digging. The vast majority of fossils are found at the surface, exposed by erosion. Wherever you go, always be sure to get permission first, and, if you find anything potentially important or still partially buried, call in an expert from a local natural history museum to collect it properly.

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