How do I discover a dinosaur?

Start digging. |  Pexels  for Pixabay

Start digging. | Pexels for Pixabay

In 2015, 5-year old Wylie Brys of Mansfield Texas was digging in a construction site and found a Nodosaur. Other kids have discovered previously unknown dinosaurs, which were later named after them, such as 7 year old Diego Suarez's Chilesaurus diegosuarezi and 5 year old Daisy Morris' Vectidraco Daisymorrisae

Kids' fossil discoveries are often described as stumbles or accidents, with headlines like "Boy Found Million-Year-Old Fossil by Tripping Over It." Although this was the case for 9 year old Jude Parks, who tripped on a Stegomastodon fossil while hiking in New Mexico with his parents, more often than not kids are primed for these discoveries. 

It goes without saying that if you're the child of a paleontologist, you have a huge advantage over the competition. But even kids not born to dinosaur hunters benefit from their parents' related specialties. Wylie Brys' zookeeper father regularly took him digging around in dirt-filled lots. Diego Suarez was the child of geologist parents who took him to their field work. Even Jude Parks' parents took him on the hike that led to his discovery. 

What can non-zookeeper, non-geologist, non-hiking parents do to help their kids make scientific breakthroughs? I’ve got you covered with four tips to encourage your budding paleontologist. 

Invest in your kids' craziest interests

Not all parents have the skill set to help kids get dinosaurs named after them. But all of us can identify and encourage our kids' talents. That was the case for Daisy Morris and her eponymous dinosaur. 

A story about the now then nine-year old Daisy and her Vectidraco Daisymorrisae quotes a paleontologist who likens her bedroom to a natural history museum. Daisy was photographed for the article underneath a pile of fossils: a turtle, a few skulls, a mounted toothed jaw that looks like it came from a shark and plenty of other objects that Daisy surely knows the name of. 

Daisy is impressive. But her mom Sian is equally so. Quoted for the above piece in the Daily Mail, she describes her role in Daisy's collection: "If we are in the car and we go past an animal that has died, she'll ask me to stop so we can pick it up and she can take it home." 

Stopping for animal carcasses? That's dedication. Letting those carcasses decompose under a crate in your garden because your child wants the maggot-cleaned bones? That's true love. 

Amazingly, Daisy's mom isn't her only ardent supporter. Her whole neighborhood assists with her unusual education, dropping off animal remains for her to clean and study. 

Bottom line: if your kid want to make the next big discovery, you'll need to allow for a few messes. 

Visit a public dig site

But let's imagine that you live in a home with a maggot-free clause, or if your backyard's not the right place to look for dinosaurs, or if you've already dug up your backyard and the hills around your house only to find no dinosaur? 

The U.S. is littered with fossil parks, where visitors can dig up and sometimes keep what treasures they find. A few public fossil parks focus on dinosaurs. Maryland's Dinosaur Park opens its fossil area to amateur paleontologists on two Saturdays each month, and had led to a number of fossil finds that have wound up in the Smithsonian, some of them by kids. The Wyoming Dinosaur Center offers Dig for a Day packages that train amateur paleontologists to dig for fossils. 

Fact-check a natural history museum

Many of the dinosaurs that fascinate us today were part of a paleontological rivalry that escalated until it financially destroyed both parties. Although numerous discoveries were made during that time--among them Triceratops and Stegosaurus--the race to discover dinosaurs faster than the competition also led to mistakes. That's why we all know what a "Brontosaurus" is, despite the fact that it never existed

Many paleontological relics are stored but unstudied, making natural history museums ripe for discovery. Paleontologist Sven Sachs was visiting the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hannover, Germany to study one sea reptile fossil when a different one caught his attention: an Ichthyosaurus that was surprisingly large. He enlisted Dean Lomax, who verified that the Ichthyosaurus was an Ichthyosaurus somersetensis, a species that Lomax and colleague Judy Massare had only recently identified. And it wasn't just any Ichthyosaurus somersetensis. It was the largest known one, complete with an embyro. 

In the University of Manchester's press release about their new find, Lomax remarked: "It amazes me that specimens such as this [the biggest] can still be ‘rediscovered’ in museum collections. You don’t necessarily have to go out in the field to make a new discovery." 

We think of museums as a finished project: here's what happened many years before we were here. But it might be more appropriate to view museums as mysteries-in-progress. 

Even if they don't identify a new species, kids with catalogue-like memories of their favorite animals can often help museums get their stories straight. While attending a Dino Snores sleepover at London's Natural History Museum, 10 year old dinosaur enthusiast Charlie Edwards noticed a mislabeled Oviraptor. His parents initially doubted him, but Charlie persisted. His parents helped him contact the museum and they thanked him for correcting their error. 

Send the kid to fossil school

If you've got a truly dedicated budding paleontologist and are willing to pay for boarding school, consider sending your child to Claremont California. There you'll find The Webb Schools and their affiliated Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, "the only nationally accredited museum in the USA on a high school campus." More remarkable than that distinction are its holdings, 95% of which were discovered by students during the school's fossil-hunting trips, which were started y science teacher Raymond M. Alf in the 1930s. 

The museum has two exhibit areas: the Hall of Footprints, which contains the largest fossil track collection in the U.S., and the Hall of Life, which chronicles the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras, as well as student-designed exhibits about their recent field discoveries. 

The students aren't mere collectors. They are collaborators, who work with the Alf Museum's full-time staff to co-author scientific papers, 28 of which have been published as of 2014. 


This piece originally appeared on Parent.co, now also extinct.