10 of the Best Fossil Sites in the World

Life has thrived on Earth for at least 3.7 billion years, a story told by rocks from some of the best fossil sites in the world.

Since the beginning of recorded history, fossils have confounded their discoverers, leading to wild folktales about mythical dragons and other strange creatures. Centuries later, naturalists Linnaeus and, later, Darwin, established the foundations of modern palaeontology with taxonomic hierarchies and evolutionary theory. Thanks to the invention of radiometric dating in the early nineteenth century, and the discovery of countless fossils, we now have a more thorough picture of the incredible story of life on Earth than we could ever have imagined. Here are just a few of the places where some of the greatest chapters of that story have been revealed.

#1. Seymour Island, Antarctica

GondwanatheresMariana Ruiz

Remains of the little-known mammalian gondwanatheres have been found in Seymour Island.

Though now a frozen desert, Antarctica was once much warmer. Off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula lies Seymour Island, home to some of the continent’s most important fossil sites. The rock formations span some 50 million years of the Earth’s history, ranging from the Late Cretaceous to the Eocene, or about 100 to 50 million years ago. The site is best known for its disarticulated fish fossils, belonging to the victims of the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Other fossils include those belonging to marsupials, proving that these animals originated in South America, crossing over to Australia when both continents were connected through Antarctica.

#2. Ediacara Hills, Australia

Dickinsonia is one of the most iconic and mysterious fossil animals of the Ediacaran Period.

Australia’s Ediacara Hills give their name to the Ediacaran Period, the first new geological period to be declared in 120 years when it was approved in 2004. Until the discovery and dating of the fossils found there, it was long assumed that multicellular life first appeared with the Cambrian Explosion 541 million years ago. However, fossils found in the Ediacara Hills, as well as various other digs around the world, have revealed that multicellular maritime life was well-established long before the Cambrian. Samples found there include fossils of 550- to 600-million-year-old jellyfish, crustaceans, flatworms, echinoderms and even trilobite ancestors.

#3. Anacleto Formation, Argentina

AucasaurusMariana Ruiz

Aucasaurus, whose remains have been found across Argentina, likely preyed in packs on the herbivorous titanosaurs.

Argentina is home to most of the known fossil sites in South America. The Anacleto Formation in Patagonia, dating from the Late Cretaceous some 80 million years ago, is home to numerous nests of fossilized dinosaur eggs, including those with embryos inside. Both eggs and bones belonging to titanosaurs have also been found there. These truly epic creatures were the largest animals to ever walk the Earth. As the eggs discovered in Patagonia prove, these wandering fortresses never stopped growing. They started their lives weighing barely 11 pounds (5 kg), eventually reaching up to 25,000 times their original weight over an estimated 40 years.

#4. Hell Creek Formation, United States

The Hell Creek Formation was once home to some of the world’s best-known dinosaur and pterosaur species.

Arguably the most famous fossil site in the world, the Hell Creek Formation spans areas of Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming. Dating from the Late Cretaceous, the rocks here have revealed some of the world’s best-known dinosaurs, such as the triceratops, tyrannosaurus rex and ankylosaurus. In total, the formation has yielded hundreds of plant and animal fossils, giving us incredible insights into the world of the Late Cretaceous and the last years of the dinosaurs. Aside from dinosaurs, Hell Creek is also home to fossils of many primitive mammals, prehistoric turtles, crocodiles and pterosaurs.

#5. Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Canada

ArthropleuraTim Bertelink

Found all over the world, including in Joggins, arthropleura was an enormous Carboniferous millipede.

The rural community of Joggins in Nova Scotia is home to one of the world’s most important Carboniferous fossil sites. The 310-million-year-old rocks there tell the story of a rainforest world in which insects and other arthropods grew to alarming sizes and oxygen levels were so high that forest fires were abundant. Among the many fossils unearthed there are those belonging to arthropleura, a millipede that grew up to 7.5 feet (2.3 metres) long. The last 20 years have seen rapidly growing interest in the site, with amateur fossil hunters discovering many specimens that are now on display at the Joggins Fossil Centre.

#6. Jurassic Coast, England

Fossilised tree stumps remaining from a time when the Jurassic Coast was dominated by tropical swamps.

England’s stunning Jurassic Coast is named after the Jurassic Period, and for good reason too. The World Heritage Site spans 95 miles (152 km) of coastline, and is home to cliffs and rocks documenting an incredible 185 million years of the Earth’s history. The sedimentary layers of the coastline have yielded countless fossils belonging to plants and animals spanning the entire Mesozoic Era, from about 252 to 66 million years ago. Unsurprisingly, it has become the UK’s most popular fossil-hunting spot. The official website features a fossil finder showcasing animals such as plesiosaurs, dinosaurs, ammonites and prehistoric fish.

#7. Stránská Skála, Czech Republic

HomotheriumJames St. John

Among the fossil remnants found in Stránská Skála are those belonging to homotherium, a sabre-tooth cat that lived in Eurasia, Africa and North America.

Stránská Skála, located just to the east of the Moravian capital Brno, is home to one of the most important Pleistocene fossil sites in Europe. The hill is approximately 600 thousand years old, forming during an interglacial period. Studied extensively during the middle of the nineteenth century, palaeontologists have unearthed hundreds of prehistoric animals, including remains of homotherium, a genus of sabre-toothed cats that disappeared around 28 thousand years ago. The area is also home to many man-made prehistoric artifacts, including the remains of a fireplace made quarter of a million years ago by our own human ancestors.

#8. Red Beds, Texas and Oklahoma

DimetrodonDmitry Bogdanov

Dimetrodon fossils have been found in great abundance in the Red Beds of Texas and Oklahoma.

The Red Beds of Texas and Oklahoma were first explored in 1877. Dating from the Early Permian, almost 300 million years ago, the site has unearthed fossil remains of dimetrodons and numerous other tetrapods. These reptile-like creatures are collectively known as synapsids, animals often characterised by the large sail-like structures on their backs. Throughout the Permian, they were among the dominant megafauna throughout most of the world. Other red beds, which refer to a type of sedimentary rock, are common throughout the western United States and span geological periods from the Devonian to the Triassic.

#9. La Brea Tar Pits, California

MammothWolfmanSF

This Colombian mammoth skeleton was one of many Pleistocene megafaunal specimens discovered in La Brea Tar Pits.

La Brea Tar Pits, located in Los Angeles, are among the most important Pleistocene fossil sites in the world. Excavation began just over a century ago when remains of ancient animals were found preserved in tar. Despite being amid one of America’s biggest cities, new fossils are still being unearthed all the time. These discoveries include some of the best-preserved samples of iconic Pleistocene megafauna, such as sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves, mammoths and ground sloths. The tar pits claimed the lives of many unlucky animals who got stuck in the sticky substance, only to be discovered tens of thousands of years later by palaeontologists.

#10. Jiufotang Formation, China

With four wings, the microraptor, discovered in the Jiufotang Formation, was one of the strangest bird-like dinosaurs of all.

Palaeontology is booming in China, owing to the vast number of fossils discovered there in recent years. Among the most famous of the fossil sites is the Jiufotang Formation near the city of Chaoyang. The formation dates from the Early Cretaceous Period from around 120 million years ago. The area has yielded fossil remains of feathered dinosaurs, prehistoric birds, early mammals, pterosaurs and crocodile-like choristoderan reptiles. In fact, the formation is so rich in palaeo-biodiversity, that it has even given rise to the term Jehol Biota, a group that includes all the organisms, including the many endemic ones, that lived there during the Early Cretaceous.

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While the above entries refer to sites where numerous fossils have been found, many more astounding discoveries have been one-offs. In fact, some of the most famous fossil remains of all time have been found in the most unexpected of places. Where do you think fossil hunters should start their journeys of discovery? Let me know in the comments below!

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