|MadSci Network: Environment/Ecology|
Heck yeah, there are fossils in Saint Louis! The best place to look for them is down - or up - or straight ahead. I'm talking, of course, about caves, which is where I've seen the best ones. Most of the caves to which you'll have access, however, won't permit you to hack big chunks of paleontological history out of them, though. But, if you want to find fossils, cave geology is the kind of AREA you want to look for. VERY close to Saint Louis is the Rockwoods Reservation (on 109 between Manchester [or Highway 100] and Interstate 44), which has a number of short trails. Rockwoods is the site of several former limestone mines. This kind of rock is great for fossil-hunting. Again, you don't want to chop stuff out of the cave or cliff walls (and I'm sure Rockwoods would not be happy about that anyway), but you can see a awful lot washed out in the streams. Most pieces I've found are chunks of limestone with small pieces of fossils in them. The most prevalent fossils I've found in such rocks are brachiopods, corals, crinoids (the state fossil! Crinoids are stalked echinoderms; if you see a string of ring-like structures that kind of looks like a vertebral column, it's a crinoid stalk), and molluscs. 50 million years or so ago, Missouri was a warm, shallow sea, a lot closer to the equator.
Your best bet is to check the stream beds for pieces of limestone that contain fossils in them. The farther off the beaten track you go the better because, obviously, pieces of rocks like these are popular pieces to collect. You should also check with the park in which you're fossil-hunting - it may be against regulations to remove ANYTHING from the park!
My best experience with fossils has been off-trail around Rockwoods Reservation. Stay in the stream bed(s) to avoid damaging the vegetation. Most places (including Rockwoods) request that you stay on trails ONLY. Rockwoods extends beyond the nucleus of trail heads around the education center. in fact, I've found MOST fossils in a stream bed in the Reservation across the street from the entrance to the park - off the east side of 109.
Aside from Rockwoods, in you just continue through all the Karsty-limestone area to the immediate west-south-west of Saint Louis, you should find plenty. Check out the road cuts! There are lots of comparatively new ones on 109 between Manchester and 44, but there is, unfortunately, no where near them to park the car (I know, I've done it.). If you don't mind a little hike and strange looks from passing cars, though, it's worth it to park at the closest intersection and walk back to check out the road cuts.
Meramec State Park is a little farther out, you need to take 44 out west just PAST the popular Meramec Caverns (which is a touristy kind of thing but fun if you've never seen it before). The state park is south of 44 - pay close attention to your map, it can get tricky. It's about an hour and a half west of Saint Louis. They, too, have nice stream beds, but looking there requires some patience. The nice thing about Meramec State Park is their phenomenal education center. If you really want to learn about the geology of the area and the kinds of fossils common to the area, their little self-guided tour is great. They also have an impressive array of books on natural history, including a couple on geology of the area that I haven't seen for sale (without ordering them) anywhere else.
Castlewood State Park is virtually a stones throw from the city - just south of Manchester Road down 141 (Woods Mill Road). I have not been there myself, but hiking pals of mine have and have brought me some nice fossils from the area (including crinoids).
You may also want to try Babler Park, which is just NORTH of Manchester on 109 - I have been to this park but only with kids and not on a fossil-hunting expedition, but it is in the right kind of geological "area" for fossil hunting.
Of course, if you're into really BIG game fossil-hunting, you'll want to go to Mastodon State Historic Site, about 20 miles south of Saint Louis in Imperial (off I-55). Pretty sure you can't, um, "collect" any of THOSE, fossils, though!
There is an excellent on-line directory of Missouri State Parks and Historic Sites put out by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which I encourage you to check for additional places to visit; it lists the whole state, but it has them listed by region. I have been to most in the Saint Louis area. In terms of fossils, the ones I discussed above were best. Please remember, however, to respect park regulations: it may not be legal to remove fossils from the park (or hike off-trail, or camp, or build fires, etc. etc. etc.)!!! All of these parks will have an educational center or at least an office where you can get trail maps and regulations. As far as road cuts are concerned, as long as you're not on private property (and this includes parking! Careful about this! Sometimes "private property" isn't posted, and now in Missouri private property can also be indicated with just purple marks on trees!!) or creating havoc with an excavation you should be OK.
Enjoy your fossil-hunting!
Kelleen Flaherty, Washington University
Jo Schaper adds:
It is against Missouri state regulations to remove any rock or mineral (including fossils) from Mo. State Parks. I suspect it would also be questionable conduct on Mo Dept. of Conservation land, or other public parks, as well, especially the removal of attached material, where it would take a hammer to loosen it. It is also against the Missouri Cave Resources Protection Act to deliberately remove speleothems or speleogens (including fossils) from a cave without the prior written permission of the cave owner.
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