Dig With The Experts 2022

Tickets and full event details will be available on February 1st, 2022.

Join us on June 4th and 5th for our signature fossil dig — Dig With The Experts! This is our very popular, once yearly opportunity to unearth the best, most complete, and most unexpected fossils at Penn Dixie! We’ll have equipment do the heavy lifting and scientific experts on site to help with locating and identifying the best fossils. You’ll have to do your share of splitting and digging, of course, but you’re guaranteed to find something cool and interesting.

Expert volunteers — including scientists, leading fossil collectors, and experts on local geology — will lead the dig in a freshly excavated section of the Lower Windom Shale and will demonstrate how to find Devonian Period trilobites, cephalopods, fish remains, brachiopods, corals, wood, and a range of other marine invertebrates. Thanks to our experts — all volunteer collectors and paleontologists who travel to Penn Dixie to share their time and knowledge — we are celebrating our 17th dig in 2022!

Tickets will be available for purchase on February 1st, 2022.

Director’s Notes: This program will sell out — please reserve in advance to guarantee a spot. We do not recommend that children under age 10 attend this program due to the technical and safety requirements of splitting rocks. Children are welcome to attend at the event rate. During Dig With The Experts, other areas of Penn Dixie will be open to fossil collectors of all ages and regular tours will be available. Tickets are electronic and will not be mailed.

Eldredgeops rana.
Bellacartrightia, found and prepped by Alasdair Gilfillan.
DWTE 2021 participants picking their piles.

Dig With The Experts draws collectors from around the globe for this unique opportunity, which was developed and is currently co-led by our friends from the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers. Bring a hammer, chisel, safety glasses, newspaper, and paper towels to wrap your fossils. Extra water is recommended, plus bring rain gear just in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Guests are welcome to bring their own food and beverages, as well as a small cart to transport personal items and specimens. Chairs and umbrellas may also be brought to this event.

Additional information:

Penn Dixie Frequently asked questions

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Rare Trilobite Found At Dig With The Experts 2021

Seasoned experts and first time fossil hunters alike visit Penn Dixie in the hopes of taking home a trilobite. Trilobites are extinct, marine arthropods, named for their three-lobed bodies. The majority of the trilobites found on site are Eldredgeops rana, although Greenops (uncommon), Bellacartrightia (rare), Pseudechenella (rare), Dipleura (very rare) have all been recorded at Penn Dixie. 

On August 27th, 28th, and 29th, fossil hunters from all over the country flocked to Penn Dixie for Dig With The Experts 2021. Dig With The Experts is an annual event that allows fossil hunters to get their hands on freshly excavated material, with guidance provided by scientific experts who help locate and identify the site’s best fossils. Among this year’s dig participants was Theodore Gray, who unearthed one of Penn Dixie’s rarest trilobites – the coveted Pseudechenella rowi. Below is Theodore’s account of discovering and prepping this extraordinary find.

In The Field

I have been a member of Penn Dixie for years but living in California, I had been to the quarry only three times over the years. On each visit, I always found a few trilobites but never a nice prone one. In 2021, I had the good fortune to be in Western NY over the weekend of Dig With The Experts. I bought tickets for Saturday and Sunday with my goal of a nice prone Eldredgeops

The execution of DWTE was new to me. I was aware that heavy equipment was involved but the sight of all those covered piles was amazing! The best part was no digging out the slabs by hand! Been there, done that.

DWTE participants picking their piles.

I picked a pile and got to work. I met the young guy digging next to me, Cole from Kentucky, and we shared the joys of each find from our respective piles. I finished going through my pile by early afternoon and had a number of nice Eldredgeops in matrix but no “killer” prone examples. I spent the rest of the day snooping through the discards from Friday’s digs and found a few more Eldredgeops and even one nice complete prone 1 incher. 

On Sunday, we returned in earnest and the same scenario ensued. I finished my pile by noon or so and then spent the afternoon banging on other peoples’ leftovers. I found another larger prone Eldredgeops that was split in the middle of the thorax but it certainly was big enough to fit the bill, if it was all there.

At some point, I had split a chunk of a slab and spotted a small pygidium, exposed by the split. The “skin” on the pygidium was damaged by the force of the split and crumbled away. Most of the bug was encased in the matrix but as I inspected it closer, I thought I saw traces of a genal spine. I suspected that it was something different but I did not know what.  

Telltale genal spine of Theodore’s trilobite.

Now, when you are digging at DWTE, you don’t waste time field prepping anything. When you find a “possible”, you put it on the keeper pile and keep moving! So, I shrugged, wrapped the trilobite in foil, put it on the keeper pile and moved on. By Sunday evening, my “keeper pile” was looking to be all that I could handle on the flight back to California and I guessed that I might need another suitcase.

On Monday, when I got back to my hotel, I revisited the little bug and it was clear that it had a genal spine. I texted “Cole from Kentucky” and sent him a photo of the mystery bug. He thought that the trilobite was an Eldredgeops, and that the “genal spine” could be a molt fragment. I told him that I thought there was a high probability that it was something else. Cole searched the PD website and found the description of the Pseudodechenella rowi.

Like Cole, having only been to PD on a few occasions, I was only aware of the presence of the Eldredgeops and Greenops genera. During DWTE, I heard chatter about the Bellacartwrightia and at some point, someone mentioned something about a rare Proteid. As a self taught preparator of trilobites, I know what a Proteid looks like.  I “cut my teeth” as a hobby preparator working on dozens of Gerastos granulosus, a Moroccan proteid species that is so common that the Moroccans call them “flies”.  Since the holochroal eyes were not visible on my specimen, only further preparation would confirm our conclusion. 

Holochroal eye (Clarkson 1975)
Schizochroal eye (Levi-Setti, 1993)

Back At The Lab

As a preparator, one wants to “practice” on the rocks from a particular locality to establish a familiarity with the way that the matrix responds to the force of the air scribes. So, it was not until almost a month later, having prepared a dozen or more of my finds, that I started on the “little pygidium” bug.

Theodore’s fossil prep lab.

In my lab, I use three primary air scribes, essentially “coarse, medium and fine”. The matrix of the Smoke Creek trilobite bed is actually quite soft so the majority of the prep work is done with the “fine” air scribe. The medium air scribe serves to “landscape” the matrix if needed. The final cleaning of crevices and such is done, by hand, with a pin vise.

Air scribe / pen.

As a preparator, one always should consider the final presentation of the specimen before starting. Since this bug was located on the edge of the rock fragment, I decided that it would look best if it was vertical on the face of the rock matrix. So, I used a tile saw to cut away the bulk of the rock fragment such that the remainder would stand up nicely with the bug presented on the face of the fragment.

Removing the matrix.

In this case, there was a substantial thickness of matrix covering the bug so I used the medium scribe to remove most of the overlying matrix, creating a crescent shaped pattern around the bug. Then, I used the “fine” scribe to carefully expose the rest of the thoracic segments and the head.

Prep progress.

The head was crushed and deformed so I stopped using the scribe when all of the main features were visible. At that point, I could clearly see that the genal spines were present on both sides and it has holochroal eyes. It was definitely a Pseudodechenella

Pseudodechenella with uncovered genal spines and holochroal eyes.

Given the rarity of the specimen and the damage to the pygidium, I opted to stop any further preparation and send it off to a professional preparator, Ben Cooper of Trilobites of America.

Theodore’s prepped Pseudodechenella.

We would like to thank Theodore for sharing this discovery with us, and congratulate him on his rare find. If you’re interested in seeing more of Theodore’s lab and equipment, click here.

Things to Check Before Putting Fossils in a Fish Tank

Guest Post By Maria Foster: A poet, a writer, and a full-time RVer. Loves fishing with her four-legged friend.

Maintaining a fish tank can be fun and exciting. You can add wood, plants, rocks, and stones to it — even fossils. The possibilities are endless!

Before you dash to the nearest beach to hunt for fossils, take a breath. There are important things to consider before decorating your fish tank with them. Your fish tank is a self-contained ecosystem on its own that is host to a variety of organisms and microorganisms such as algae, bacteria, and tardigrades. It’s therefore important to consider how anything you add to it might affect the delicate balance inside your aquarium. In this article, we’ll guide you through everything you need to know and do before adding fossils to your fish tank.

How Are Fossils Created?

Fossils are the preserved remains of plants and animals. When the conditions are just right and an organism doesn’t decay or get eaten, its physical shape and form are left behind in sediment. The oldest fossil discovered is estimated to be 3.5 billion years old. These organisms become fossils by:

  • Authigenic preservation. Molds or casts of destroyed or dissolved organisms.
  • Carbonization/coalification. Carbon remains in the specimen where other elements are removed.
  • Permineralization/petrification. Rock-like minerals slowly slip into the original organic tissues replacing them with calcite, pyrite, and silica thereby forming a rock-like fossil, which can be both hard and soft.
  • Recrystallization. The hard parts of an organism revert to more stable minerals. Alternatively, small crystals turn into larger ones.
  • Replacement. The hard parts of an organism are replaced by minerals like calcite, iron, pyrite, and silica.
  • Unaltered preservation. Parts of plants and insects are trapped in the sap of a tree.

Are Fossils Safe for Fish Tanks?

Fossils can have mineral or metal content such as calcium which can potentially harm your fish. There are tests that you can do at home to determine if a fossil is safe for your aquarium. An even better option is to have a geologist analyze the content of your fossil.

How can a fossil affect your fish tank? The carbonate content in fossils can negatively drastically affect your aquarium’s pH level and the alkalinity of the water so you should never add a fossil without inspecting it first. Likewise, aquarium water can completely dissolve some rocks and fossils, destroying your valuable specimen.

Rocks To Avoid

You might have noticed a wealth of fossils sold online and in pet shops. However, just because they’re being sold for aquariums doesn’t mean they’re right for the one you have. In general, you should steer clear of pointed and sharp-edged rocks since they can injure your fish.
Additionally, saltwater and freshwater aquariums will have different rocks in them. What’s safe for one may not be good for another because aquarium rocks can affect the water hardness and pH levels of your fish tank. You should also consider the individual needs of the species living inside it. If you have a saltwater tank, the following rocks and decorations should work fine:

  • Crushed coral
  • Dolomite
  • Geodes
  • Limestone
  • Marble
  • Shells

If you have a freshwater aquarium, consider the following rocks:

  • Lava rocks
  • Quartzite
  • Rainbow rocks
  • Petrified wood
  • Onyx
  • Texas holey rocks
  • Sandstone
  • Granite

Even if a rock is listed safe for your type of aquarium, there’s no telling if it might hold minerals or fragments that are unsafe for your fish tank. Therefore, it’s always best to run any rock or fossil you want to add through a test before adding it.

How to Determine the Safety Quotient of a Fossil

Step 1
Test the hardness of the rock with a steel knife. If the fossil is harder than the steel, it’s safe but if it’s soft and you’re able to make etches on it or small pieces come off, proceed with the rest of the steps to determine if it’s safe to add.

Step 2
To check the safety quotient of a rock that didn’t pass the strength test outlined in the first step, check for carbonated materials within the rock by checking its pH level. Here’s how:

Method 1
Since vinegar erodes calcium carbonate, you can use vinegar to detect carbonates’ presence in fossils. Pour a small amount of warm vinegar on the fossil. Hold it close to your ear. If it fizzes, it has carbonates in it.
However, vinegar is a weak acid so it won’t always produce that audible fizz. With a magnifying glass, look for fizzing and bubbles on the surface where you placed the vinegar.

Method 2
Based on the same principle, you can also use muriatic acid for testing. Though we outline the instructions here, it shouldn’t be the first course of action especially for minors and individuals with limited experience handling industrial chemicals.
Vinegar works just as well without the risk of blindness, skin burns, and harming your respiratory system. If you must use this method, always use the prescribed safety gear and exercise utmost caution.

Method 3
You can also test the fossil by immersing it in a clear glass container filled with tap water for a couple of weeks. Check the pH level of the water before and after. If you don’t have access to a pH meter, observe the fossil for signs of dissolution or decomposition.
A small change in the pH levels shouldn’t concern you but if the pH level drastically changes, avoid putting it in the fish tank as it can endanger your fish’s health causing shock and even death.
If your fossil has mineral streaks such as red or green rust, don’t bother to test it, it’s not a good candidate.

A green beautiful planted tropical freshwater aquarium with goldfish

Are Carbonates Good for Your Fish Tank?

Water hardness refers to the amount of dissolved minerals in water and is a vital parameter when you have a freshwater aquarium. One of the things you need to keep an eye on is the carbonate level in your fish tank. Your aquarium’s carbonate level is important because it contributes to general water hardness and can be used to boost alkalinity (the water’s ability to resist changes in pH levels). How? Carbonate binds to acids when they appear which has a neutralizing effect.

In the right amounts, calcium carbonate is useful for fish to build stronger bones, regulate metabolism and their ion exchange. You therefore need to maintain certain carbonate levels to ensure the health, growth, and longevity of your fish. When the carbonate hardness dips too low, it can cause your fish tank’s pH levels to fluctuate drastically which can harm and even kill your fish.

While water hardness ranges from soft (0 to 50 ppm) to very hard (200 to 400 ppm), a hardness of 60 ppm and above is generally good for fish. Pay close attention to the carbonate hardness levels that the life in your aquarium needs to thrive.

How pH levels work

Your aquarium’s pH levels determine the acidity or basicity of the water. It uses a logarithmic scale that considers a pH level of seven neutral. Anything below seven is categorized as acidic while water above seven is classified as basic or alkaline.

Why is this an important consideration for your fish tank? The pH level in your aquarium is important because sudden changes to it (even if minimal) can stress your fish and affect their well-being.

To make pH levels work for you, identify the pH range that is acceptable for the type of aquatic life you’re taking care of and make sure that the pH level doesn’t change by more than 0.3 units per day. Any more will cause stress to your fish.

Most freshwater tropical fish will thrive between 6.8 and 7.6 pH. Keep in mind that your aquarium’s pH levels will decrease over time as a result of the breakdown of organic material. One of the best ways to deal with this is by replacing some of the water periodically.

When the amount of carbonate goes up, your water’s pH level rises too. If you have saltwater fish in your tank, this shouldn’t be a problem. However, the water hardness required by guppies, malees, and goldfish will be different from what marine fish or African cichlids need so make sure to always take the kind of fish you have into account.

If the tank is big and the fossil is significantly smaller, it should pose a lower health risk to your fish no matter what minerals it contains. You only need to regularly change the water in the tank to make it more habitable. There are certain chemicals, however, that are deadly to certain fish and many invertebrates. Copper is one such example. When placed in a fish tank in even small amounts, it can wipe out all the life in your aquarium that isn’t a fish. You need to be careful because copper is found in many materials such as azurite, malachite, and turquoise.

Calcium Carbonate and Your Fish Tank

One thing you need to always check for is the possible presence of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). On their own, calcium, carbon, and oxygen in small to moderate quantities aren’t likely to do any harm to the life in your fish tank. However, the chemical compound calcium carbonate dissolves quickly in freshwater and could potentially leave behind residue that can clog your filters. This is why rocks with high calcium carbonate content should never be put in your fish tank no matter how pretty they look. A good example is shale which can contain harmful levels of calcium carbonate.

While fish need a healthy amount of calcium, fossils with high calcium content can easily add too much calcium to your aquarium and cause stress to the fish living in it.

You’ll notice if your fish are stressed if they become lethargic, start swimming erratically, or don’t grow as fast. Too much calcium in your fish tank can even cause your fish to die.

How Much Calcium Do Fish Tanks Need?

If you have corals, coralline algae, and invertebrates in your fish tank, you’ll need to ensure that your tank has about 400 to 420 parts per million (ppm) of dissolved calcium. There are a number of ways to add calcium to your aquarium. Some of the preferred methods include adding eggshells, liquid additives, corals, and cuttlebones.

Where Can You Collect Fossils?

You can collect fossils from anywhere as long as they aren’t near an industrial area. Industrial areas can add harmful chemicals to fossils. While they may not be immediately fatal for your fish, their carcinogenic and harmful effects will lead to their deterioration.
Additionally, you should also make sure you’re not picking up rocks and fossils from an area where it is illegal to do so.

Fossil Care Instructions

Once you’ve determined that a fossil is safe, you should clean it by placing it under running water and scrubbing it with a brush to remove dirt and dust. If your fossil is heavily soiled, you can soak it in a bleach and water solution. Alternatively, you can also boil the fossil for 10 to 20 minutes to kill any unwanted bacteria and parasites. Rocks can stay hot for a long time so make sure to give them sufficient time to cool before handling them.
Between the two methods, boiling your fossil in water is the better alternative since bleach can leak into a rock’s pores and contaminate your fish tank later. Because of this, use bleach as a last resort and only for plastic and glass aquariums.

The Takeaway: Make Sure Your Fossils Are Safe for Your Fish

Fossils are a great way to make your aquarium more beautiful. They’re also great objects that your fish can interact with. However, you’ll want to make sure that the fossils you put in benefit your aquarium without unintentionally harming the life inside it.
By following the instructions outlined here, you can confidently and safely decorate your fish tank with fossils.

Science Talk Doubleheader

Monday August 23, 7 pm

Get ready for Dig With The Experts with two science talks on one night!

First, Executive Director Dr. Phil Stokes presents Britain to Buffalo: The Fossil Connection. His talk will provide an overview of the local rocks and Devonian Period marine fossils found at Penn Dixie. For context, he will discuss the history of geology, Mary Anning, William ‘Strata’ Smith, and their stories connect to the rocks and fossils found in Western New York.

Our second and keynote speaker is Paleontologist Joe ‘PaleoJoe’ Kchodl of Midland, Michigan. PaleoJoe’s talk, Trilobites: Arthropods of the Ancient Seas, will highlight Penn Dixie’s famous fossil — the trilobite — and its cousins from around the world. Learn about the life and death of trilobites and how the Cambrian period became known as the Age of Trilobites.

This is a FREE virtual program thanks to the support of Erie County and the Town of Hamburg. Register here by 6:30 pm on the day of the talk to receive a Zoom invitation. Space is limited to the first 100 participants.

Fossil Hunting for Beginners

New to fossil hunting?

Learn the tricks of the trade from Director of Education & Paleontologist, Dr. Holly Schreiber and/or Director of Science, Catherine Konieczny, M.S. Tour the site and learn all the best spots to hunt for fossils. During this two hour tour we’ll teach you how to find, dig, and preserve all the fossil treasures you find. Bring your own tools or borrow from our limited supply.

No experience necessary. All ages welcome — this program will run rain or shine, dress for the weather.

Dates and times:
Saturdays throughout the season starting at 10 am and lasting until 12 pm.

  • May 15th, 10 am-12  pm
  • June 5th, 10 am-12 pm
  • June 19th, 10 am-12 pm
  • July 3rd, 10 am-12 pm
  • July 17th, 10 am-12 pm
  • August 7th, 10 am-12 pm
  • August 21st, 10 am-12 pm
  • September 4th, 10 am-12 pm
  • October 9th, 10 am-12 pm

Included with admission or FREE for Penn Dixie members.
Select “Fossil Hunting for Beginners” tour-time option when registering online, for no additional charge.