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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Illustration of ancient flora
Tom Lipka

Question: When did you start collecting fossils, and what got you hooked?

Answer: I was around eight years old. I was a frequent visitor to our local library, where I happened upon a book about the "Coal Age" and where those types of fossils are found. Then the light went off! My mother was from a coal mining area of West Virginia and my grandfather was a retired coal miner. Every summer we would drive to my grandparents' house. I remember asking my mom about finding fossils there and without hesitation she said, "They are all over the place." So on our next trip, my dad had not even turned the car off yet when I hopped out and started checking every rock I could find. Almost instantly I found some plant fossils! I was hooked! Thereafter, every summer trip to my grandparents would result in a station wagon loaded down with plant fossils upon my return home! I also enjoyed the really striking juxtaposition of finding fossil ferns in the backwoods of West Virginia with modern ones growing right alongside and even on top of them!

Question: What do you enjoy most about collecting fossils?

Answer: There are a couple of things. First and foremost is the possibility of new discovery and, especially for me, the publication of research. Then there is the fact that that anything one finds regardless of whether it's new to science or not, is something that has not been seen in millions or even hundreds of millions of years. Even while deer hunting from a ground blind in western Maryland, I'm studying the rocks that make up my blind when deer activity is low. I just cannot get enough!

Question: Do you look for a particular kind of fossil? How do you decide what type of fossils to look for, and where to look for them?

Answer: To the extent that a particular fossil deposit or site is known for having certain taxa, I of course try to key in on that type. But I am always keen to look for and collect anything that is different, unusual or outstanding. I seem to have a natural knack for that. But before I even reach the site, I try to thoroughly research my target. I have topographic and geologic maps that I consult as well as other books and references. I've also been a prolific user of the resources of the Maryland Geologic Survey. And finally, there is a lot of information available on the Internet.

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

Answer: Books! Going back to my childhood days, I would go to the library and check any books about fossils that I could find. In my adult years (post-military and during college), I began seeking and making contact with the experts who almost to a man or woman were eager to help.

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

Answer: Without a doubt, my most exciting finds for science have been my discoveries of the first ever Mesozoic mammal fossils from the Cretaceous of Maryland - a triconodont (an extinct lineage of primitive mammal), Arundelconodon hottoni, and the first nearly complete skull of a new turtle from the same site, Arundelemys dardeni, both of which I named.

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

Answer: First and foremost was my desire to produce scientific knowledge. I was NOT after material just for a collection to display at gem and mineral shows! What brought all this to the fruition was that I was informed by the secretary at the front office of a quarry where I wanted to collect that I needed "an ok from Dr. Nicholas Hotton at the Smithsonian." I asked for, and was surprised to get, his home phone number with which I proceeded directly to the payphone outside and called Dr. Hotton at home, and on a Saturday afternoon at that! I was surprised when he picked up the phone and warmly and graciously received me, a total stranger wanting to collect fossils on his site! We struck a gentleman's agreement then and there that he could have first crack at any fossils of scientific importance. Since this was my goal in the first place, I was able to kill two birds with one stone!

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

Answer: Sure! Research your target site. Make sure that you know what you are looking for and where to look. Definitely get permission from the landowner beforehand. Leave the place as you found it and by all means, do NOT ruin the site for others by being greedy or over-zealous with the shovel and rock hammer! This really turns off landowners and ruins it for everyone. Assure them that you are not seeking a profit angle and that you will sign a "hold harmless" release. If you find something new, exotic or known to be of scientific importance, definitely contact an expert! No one can make you give up a "legally" obtained find but I strongly encourage people to consider donating any important find to a reputable conservatory. It is not unreasonable to ask that a replica of the find(s) be made and given to you.

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