San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Exhibits
Fossil Hunters San Diego

This exhibition closed September 5, 2005


Kids exploring the ankylosaur sculptureFOSSIL HUNTERS SAN DIEGO, San Diego Natural History Museum's new exhibition, shows visitors how the Museum's paleontologists hunt for local fossils—what they look for, the tools they use, how they excavate and transport the fossils, and how they prepare and study them. The reward of the hunt is discovering what the fossils reveal about San Diego's fascinating past.

FOSSIL HUNTERS SAN DIEGO makes it possible for visitors to meet the changing cast of characters that lived right here in San Diego County over millions of years—dinosaurs, rhinoceros, primates, sea cows, walrus, whales, mammoths, mastodons and more.

sunbow whale fossilThe staff of the Museum's Department of Paleontological Services hunts for the majority of fossils found by the Museum, literally running behind huge bulldozers as they scrape the land in preparation for building and development. This is one of a few San Diego-based consulting groups specializing in the collection, salvage, preparation, and curation of paleontological resources (fossils) from development-slated acreage. Services also include paleontological resource assessment of property (residential, commercial, municipal), relevant to environmental impact studies.

Mammoth fossilThe Paleontology staff has provided consulting services since 1981 for many San Diego County residential developers; on Caltrans roadway construction projects, and City of San Diego pipeline replacement and construction projects.

Thousands of significant fossils have been salvaged from construction sites in San Diego, Orange, and Imperial counties. These fossils are now permanently housed at the San Diego Natural History Museum where many are, or have been, on public exhibit. Researchers from around the world have studied many of the salvaged fossils and numerous scientific papers have been published on these specimens.

Exhibition Overview

Mammoth tusk and molar fossilFossils in the Field: Discovery and Excavation
"Visit" a fossil locality here in San Diego County. See what real fossils look like in the field. Learn what fossil hunters need to know to be successful. Imagine you are a fossil hunter and identify which rocks are fossils and which ones are not. Map a fossil site. Pick through a pile of rocks and salvage "fossils" for future study. Find out where you can see real fossils in the field.

In the lab with a specimenFossils in the Lab: Preparation and Research
Look behind the scenes at the Museum. See how paleontologists liberate fossils from the rock they were preserved in. Look at and touch these fossil treasures. Like a puzzle, put a broken fossil back together and discover its identity. Look at fossils with modern bones and see how they compare. Examine an abundance of fossils in cases, on shelves, and in drawers. Join our Museum's research staff in exploring the meaning of fossils-learn to look carefully to see what they see.

Making Sense of It All
Imagine regional prehistoric life and landscapes—our Museum's fossils are the key. See how scientists and artists work together to depict past lives, events, and settings based on fossil evidence. Touch an armored dinosaur model based on fossils found just 30 miles from the Museum. Meet the dynamic cast of characters that lived right here in San Diego County, and discover the history that we all share.

Fossils on Display
Where the Museum's paleontologists found fossils and what they found:

  • Carlsbad (Carlsbad Research Center, Sunny Creek, Mariano, College Blvd, Carlsbad Beach, Emerald Ridge): ankylosaur, oreodonts (relative of camels) Leptoreodon (relative of pigs), plants, ammonites (relative of chambered nautilus)
  • Chula Vista (Rancho del Rey, Otay Ranch, Sunbow, East H St., Terra Nova, Bel Air Ridge and Eastlake): fur seal, two kinds of walruses, baleen whales, primitive pocket mice, several new species of whales, sea cow (relative of the manatee), oreodonts, sloths, invertebrates (clams, snails)
  • City of San Diego (Torrey Santa Fe, North City West, Torrey Highlands, Bougainvillea, Scripps Northridge, Scripps Ranch North, Kelly Ranch, LMXU Village Center, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Point Loma, Mission Hills, Azuaga, State Routes 52 and 56): walrus, baleen whales, sea cows, marsupials, elephant shrews, brontotheres, tarsiers, marine invertebrates, ground sloths and numerous plants including ferns, banana trees, soapberries, magnolias, palms, sumac, sycamore, laurel and cycads
  • Lemon Grove: a boa and an oreodont
  • National City: a ground sloth
  • Oceanside (Stonecrest Square, Rancho del Oro, Ocean Ranch, State Route 78, Wanis View Estates): brontotheres (relative of rhinos), rhinos, primitive carnivores (miacid and creodont), tapirs, tarsiers, squirrels, armored lizards, mastodons, mammoths, bison, horses, pond turtles, ground sloths
  • Rancho Santa Fe east: a ground sloth

SDNHM Paleontologist, Brad Riney: The Most Successful Dinosaur Hunter in the State of California

In 1967, at the age of thirteen, he found his first dinosaur fossil in a sea cave in La Jolla, a single hadrosaur neck vertebra. Riney made a similar find again in 1976, when he found two vertebrae from a mosasaur (giant seagoing lizard) at Point Loma. His skills for finding important fossils were recognized by Tom Deméré of San Diego Natural History Museum, who hired Riney as a curatorial assistant and field paleontologist.

The 1980s were very productive years for dinosaur discovery in San Diego County. In 1983 Riney found a hadrosaur femur and three years later thirteen hadrosaur vertebrae, all in the Carlsbad area. In 1987 he found a small foot bone of a dinosaur, and at a construction site in Carlsbad he made his most exciting find yet; an ankylosaur, on of the armored dinosaurs, a dinosaur never seen before in Alta California. It turned out to be one of the most complete dinosaur specimens ever found in the state: it even retained some of its dermal armor. Today it's on display in the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Riney is not only a talented paleontologist and geologist but also an excellent preparator. He has prepared most of the specimens that he found, as well as many others at the San Diego Natural History Museum. In addition, Riney is a talented artist and does paleontological illustrations at the Museum, some for publications.

Riney radiates his love of fossil hunting. Today he continues to search excavations, walk the beaches, and explore the cliffs of San Diego County looking for Mesozoic remains.

The Museum is grateful for exhibition support from the Parker Foundation, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Greg Cox and Pam Slater-Price, The Otay Ranch Company, Brookfield Shea Otay LLC, and the San Diego Building Industries Association.

Fossil Hunters | Exhibits