The lure of fossils


New Mexico, like the rest of the Southwest, is a land rich in fossils. Most fossils, which are the ancient remains of plants and animals, occur in sedimentary rocks. And, every county in New Mexico has extensive outcroppings of such rocks.

The late Professor A. Northrup once wrote: “New Mexico’s amateur and professional fossil collectors, both young and old, have since 1841 been filling their knapsacks and kegs and boxes, and loading their burros and wagons and Model-T’s and Jeeps with extraordinary finds.”

By professional collectors, of course, he means paleontologists, who study fossil animals; paleobotanists, who deal with fossil plants; and geologists who are interested in the rock formations that hold the fossils.

The very first collector was probably Thomas Falconer, a fellow of the Geological Society of London. He was in the Republic of Texas in 1841 making scientific observations, but also serving as a spy for the British government.

Young Falconer had the misfortune to join the ill-fated Texan-Santa Fe expedition, which invaded New Mexico in 1841. As the party crossed the plains of west Texas and eastern New Mexico, he made a collection of shells and minerals. Mexican soldiers from Santa Fe captured the entire expedition. Falconer’s valuable collection and his scientific notes were confiscated and he never saw them again.

Five years later, Lt. James W. Abert at the Army Corps of Engineers explored New Mexico, right after the American invasion. In his scientific reports can be found numerous reference to fossils. He mentions specifically the discovery of sharks teeth, shells, bones of fish and ammonites (large snail-like creatures). Abert also described huge petrified logs seen near Cerrillos as in the Puerco basin.

The next important name in New Mexico fossil collecting is that of Edward D. Cope, a paleontologist sometimes identified as a reckless and eccentric genius.

In 1874, Cope joined a party headed by Lt. George Wheeler. The men were charged by the Corps of Engineers with making a geologic and topographic survey of the New Mexico Territory. In the badlands surrounding San Ildefonso Pueblo on the Rio Grande, Cope made some startling discoveries. He unearthed the ancient remains of camels, horses, rhinos, mastodons and crocodiles.

Later, he wrote his father, saying this was “the most important find in geology I ever made.” It would also contribute to his growing reputation as a paleontologist.

Strangely, these early pioneer fossil collectors seem to have overlooked dinosaur remains. Perhaps it was because the ancient reptiles were just then beginning to be identified. The word “dinosaur” was not even coined until 1841. In time valuable dinosaur deposits would turn up at Elephant Butte, Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, Tucumcari and at various isolated locations on the Navajo Reservation. Dinosaur bones by the ton were shipped out of New Mexico to be displayed in museums across America and Europe. The people of the state lamented their loss, but little could be done since no local facilities existed for exhibition purposes.

The state Legislature remedied that problem in 1980 with an appropriation to fund a New Mexico Museum of Natural History at Albuquerque. Built at a cost of $11 million, it opened in January 1986. The museum exhibits showcase the state’s rich fossil record. Paleontologist Barry S. Kues of the University of New Mexico says that one of the most exciting aspects of collecting and learning about fossils is that new types keep turning up. They continually erode to the surface or appear when rock strata are cut in highway building. Important discoveries are made not only by geologists and paleontologists, he says, but also by amateur collectors, ranging from school children to college students and senior citizens.

But fossils are a nonrenewable resource, he warns. Collecting should be done with care to avoid damaging deposits. And rare or unusual finds need to be reported to professional scholars. Beginners ought to obtain a copy of Dr. Kues’ handbook titled “Fossils of New Mexico” (University of New Mexico Press). It will get amateur collectors started on the right foot.