We'll dig so you don't have to!
Sixty-five million years ago, as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops roamed the land, much of what is now the coasts and central plains of North America were covered by shallow seas that teemed with marine life - often in conditions that lent themselves to the formation of marine fossils that have survived continental upheavals to be found all over the country today.
Fossil hunting enthusiasts in and around Delaware have an excellent source of easy-to-find treasures, courtesy of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal! The canal, begun in the early 1800s, is today a 14 mile long, 450 foot wide, 35 foot deep waterway that connects the two bays that its name is derived from. It still undergoes regular dredging to keep it passable for the big freighters that come through on a regular basis.
What does this have to do with fossil hunting?
Well, all that sand and silt - and the cretaceous glories buried there - have to go somewhere! The state dumps some of the spoils at the Fort Dupont State Park near the Reedy Point bridge and allows access to the public, including the right to take home small amounts of items for personal collections.
Fort Dupont State Park, 45 Clinton St, Delaware City, DE 19706, USA
When my family visits here we usually bring a children's beach bucket or two to hold our finds, and a couple of small trowels - though we hardly use the latter, because often our best finds come simply from looking at the ground ahead of us as we walk.
(Important note: this park does allow deer hunting on its grounds for a few months of the year in late fall and winter, so when planning a trip here it's a good idea to consult the state hunting and trapping guidelines to minimize the chances of sharing the space with rifle-toting hunters! I've been there a few times during hunting season and only once seen hunters there, wrapped in their required-by-law easy-to-spot bright orange.)
What to Look For
Belemnites - The Official State Fossil
The fossil in greatest abundance and most often undamaged in the spoils piles here are the preserved pointy ends of small, ten-armed squid-like creatures called belemnites. These animals thrived in this area for about 140 million years and they preserve well, so they occur in very large numbers here. Look for smooth, amber-brown tube-like structures from about 1 to 4 inches in length, tapering off to a dull point at one end.
The second most common finds in the spoils piles are Exogyra, byvalve mollusks of about the same vintage as the belemnites. These resemble large oysters or flat-bottom clams. They're a bit more fragile than their pointy-headed neighbors - and in some cases, they "fossilize" into a mud-like consistency that will crumble to the touch - so it's a little tougher to find whole ones; but a little searching will almost always turn up one or two good examples.
While my family has built up a small fossil collection over the last few years, we're still relative amateurs, and much of what we've collected are interesting objects that we've never gotten around to showing to someone more knowledgeable for identification. We have many stones bearing interesting colors or markings - one even looks like it might have been some part of a bone in one of the joints in some sea animal. For the keen eye there's a lot to find!
I have two favorite items from the canal spoils. I don't know what the first one is, and the image shown doesn't do it justice. The whole object has a deep prismatic metal sheen, and the leafy tendrils around its edges certainly have an organic look to them. Could this be the fossilized form of some early relative of the sea anemone?
My other favorite is much easier to identify: it's an arrowhead, probably fashioned by one of the native tribes that traveled and traded along this coast hundreds of years ago. No, it's not a fossil, but it's perhaps even more interesting because there's a human story behind it. Who made it? How did it end up near the shores of the Delaware Bay? Who brought it here, and why, and what was he like? How would he have reacted if someone had tried to explain to him the civilization that would find his arrowhead and look on it in wonder?
Fossil Hunting is Fun and Educational
Bring the kids along - they'll have so much fun digging in the giant piles of dirt, they'll hardly notice they're learning something at the same time!