Tools for Exposing Fish Fossils

Written by faith chandler
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Tools for Exposing Fish Fossils
Fish fossils form in layers of limestone, sandstone and other shales. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Fish fossils are very delicate as they are found in soft stones like limestone. The fossils require dozens of hours of preparation, but the finished product is frequently valued for its aesthetic look and history. A variety of tools help paleontologists to excavate and prepare fish fossils for display. These tools require skill and patience to use.


Hand-held or long-handled shovels are the first tools most paleontologists use to excavate fossils. They dig out a large, shallow area with the long-handled shovels. This part proceeds slowly and carefully, as shovelling dirt may damage hidden fossils. They then use hand-held shovels to scrape layers of dirt and loose stone away from the fossil bed. Using smaller shovels prevents them from damaging the fish fossils while they work.


Trowels are used in a manner similar to hand-held shovels. Paleontologists use them to scrape away layers of dirt and stone, lift up or pry apart layers of stone and gently pick at stones with the trowel points. The trowels can be common household gardening and cement trowels, but they need to be strong so they won't bend under pressure.


Paleontologists use hand-held picks and small dental picks on digs. These less precise tools help in setting up a dig or clearing out hard stone. After they clear away dirt and stone dust from a fish fossil, they use dental picks to separate small pieces of stone from the fossil.


Brushes of all shapes and sizes are used to clean out a fish fossil. Wide, soft-bristled brushes clear the majority of dirt away from a find. Smaller soft-bristled brushes clean out the easy to remove dirt from the fossil itself. Small, stiff-bristled brushes gently remove stubborn dirt. Paleontologists may also use a toothbrush for this purpose, although they must use it sparingly as the stiff bristles can actually sweep away parts of the fossil.

Needle Scribe

After scientists remove a fish fossil from the excavation site, they further expose it using a needle scribe. This small tool looks like a pen with a long, thin, metal needle on one end. It is scraped lightly along the stone to break up the stone, further exposing parts of the fish. This tool is commonly used on fossils found in shale.


A variety of saws are used for cutting fossils from the stone or even separating fish fossils into a positive and negative layer. Power saws are common tools, as their power and speed make quick work of cutting stone. Circular saws and tile saws cut fossils out of a stone bed and can trim fossils down. Diamond blades are essential for very hard stones, but most fish fossils are found in a soft stone. Any sharp carbide-tipped saw will work on limestone.

White glue

Once scientists fully expose a fish fossil, they soak it in a mix of white glue and water for five to ten minutes. This glue helps hold the fossil together and make the fish stand out more against the stone. Basic white glue is suitable, or you can purchase commercial glues for this purpose.

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