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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a fossil?
A: A fossil is any remain, trace, or imprint of a once-living animal, plant, or single-celled organism that has been preserved in rock.

Q: Where can I go to collect fossils?
A: There are very few places in Washington that provide opportunities for fossil collecting:

1) You can contact the Northwest Paleontological Association, a group of avocational paleontologists. The NPA is a 501(c)(3), but it is affiliated with the Burke Museum.

2) The Stonerose Interpretive Center in the town of Republic, Washington, is one of the few reliable and accessible places to find fossils. Stonerose is open from the beginning of May through the end of October. Republic is in Ferry County, approximately 300 miles (a day's drive) from the Seattle area. There is a small admission fee, and you can rent collecting tools there.

Visitors are required to show their collected material to the Stonerose staff, and the center staff will retain any extraordinary specimens. The fossil locality, which produces abundant fossils, is in the middle of town and is suitable for all ages. 

an aturia
What's this fossil? It's an aturia, a nautilid of the Tertiary period.
Photo by Ron Eng

fossil bone of a giant sloth
This is the fossil bone of a giant sloth.
Photo by Ron Eng

Q: Can someone identify my fossil for me?
A: Yes, we can. E-mail us at lnesbitt@u.washington.edu (or call us at 206-543-7907) and make an appointment to ensure that one of us is here to meet you when you bring it in.

Q: Will you take it away if it is scientifically valuable?
A: No! We do not take anything away from anyone; we are here to help you learn more about paleontology. However, you may donate it to the museum if you wish, and if it is of scientific interest.

Q: Will you buy our fossil?
A: No, we do not purchase fossils.

Q: Have any dinosaur fossils been found in Washington?
A: Yes! Burke Museum paleontologists recently discovered the first dinosaur fossil ever found in Washington state! The 80-million-year-old fossil is a partial left femur bone of a theropod dinosaur, the group of two-legged, meat-eating dinosaurs that includes Velociraptor, Tyrannosaurus rex and modern birds. It was collected by Burke Museum paleontologists along the shores of Sucia Island State Park in the San Juan Islands in May 2012 in an incredible instance of the right people being in the right place at the right time. You can see Washington's first dinosaur fossil now on display at the Burke Museum. 

Q: How can I learn more about dinosaurs?
A: Come to our annual Dino Day! Rarely seen fossils from the Burke's extensive collection are brought out especially for this popular family event each March. You'll see the bones of dinosaurs and other fossils, try hands-on activities, and watch a professional fossil preparator actually dig, clean, and arrange real fossils. 

Families meet fossils
Families meet fossils at Dino Day, with Northwest Paleontological Association volunteer Steve Huhta.
Photo by Rina Wolwend

professional fossil preparator
You can watch a professional fossil preparator at work during Dino Day.
Photo by Rina Wolwend

Q: What is the state fossil?
A: The Washington state fossil is the Columbian mammoth, Mammuthus columbi. Mammoths and mastodons lived in Washington until approximately 10,000 years ago. Mammoth fossils have been found throughout western Washington. There have also been occasional discoveries in central and eastern Washington.


A brief review of the paleontological and geological history of Washington, with photos of some of our fossils is on Paleoportal Web site of the national Paleontological Society. Click on the button for "Exploring Time and Space" to find the Washington State page.

Q: What's the difference between paleontology and archaeology?
A: Paleontology is the study of life in past geologic time. Archaeology is the study of past human cultures.