Guide to Collecting Fossils

A large fossil in grey rock on the beach.
A large fossil in grey rock on the beach.

so you found a fossil. now what?

People find fossils in Santa Cruz County all the time! Some of these objects are important for research, while others are best left as part of the landscape. This guide will help you decide what to do when you find something during your outdoor exploration.

Where can I find fossils?

We live in an area with amazing fossil diversity. The beaches of Capitola and Aptos are great places to easily spot fossils, especially at low tide. Explore our guide to the fossils of Santa Cruz County.

May I collect fossils?

Always know before you go when collecting. Determine whose property you are on and what their rules are for collecting. Generally, collecting fossils is not allowed on most public land.

Vertebrate fossils (including all mammals like whales and mastodons) are protected on all public lands and require a permit for collecting. In California, plant and invertebrate fossils on non-federal public lands are also protected. This means that you are not allowed to collect fossil shells embedded in rock from Capitola and Aptos beaches without first getting a permit from the appropriate agency (either County or State Parks).

But should I collect fossils?

In addition to knowing if you are legally allowed to collect, consider that when you collect an object, you are removing it from its context — without good data, it’s unlikely that specimens can be used for science. Every specimen collected from nature impacts the surrounding ecosystem which is why certain species and properties are protected.

If you find something interesting, rather than collecting it, you can leave it where you found it, take a picture, and notify the agency whose property you are on and/or the Museum. Fossil shells around Capitola are incredibly common, but if you find something unusual that doesn’t seem to be commonplace, it might be worth getting in touch with us. 

May I bring my fossil to the Museum?

If you’ve found something that you would like us to take a look at and help you identify, take a photo and send it to collections@santacruzmuseum.org. Be sure to include something for scale and mention where you found it. The museum cannot physically accept objects without prior consent. If you’re interested in donating your specimen to the Museum, our collections staff will need to first assess how it fits within our collections policy.

Why are museum collections important?

Our Museum has a long history of working with collectors to preserve important objects for research and education. Our founder, Laura Hecox, was an amateur collector who grew up on West Cliff Drive, collecting fossils, shells, and other objects that captivated her attention. Over time, she worked with scientists who even named new species after her, and donated her vast collection to the foundation of Santa Cruz’s first public museum.

Many of the objects in our collections were found by community members while exploring nature. The first mastodon specimen recorded in Santa Cruz County was discovered by 16-year-old Jim Stanton while exploring Aptos Creek in 1980.

When collections are brought to museums, they are able to benefit whole communities through research, education, and accessibility.

Other Resources

Articles about our fossil collections

Watch lectures

Learn about local paleontologists

Books and academic papers

Online resources

Fossils on exhibit at the Museum

  • Cast of a fossil sea cow (Dusisiren jordani) excavated from the Santa Margarita Formation at a Zayante sand quarry in 1963.
  • Fossil skull of a Pacific Mastodon (Mammut pacificus) discovered in March 1980 by Aptos resident Jim Stanton. He spotted the giant molars protruding from a gravel bank along Aptos Creek.
  • Fossil jaw bone of a baleen whale from the Santa Margarita Formation in Scotts Valley.
  • An array of shark teeth (including Megalodon), bivalves, plants, and the skulls of a fossil dolphin, walrus, and sea lion, as well as microfossils.
  • Garden fossils: Take a stroll around the Museum’s Garden Learning Center and see if you can spot our large whale fossils.
  • Activities for kids: Multiple dig boxes feature Santa Margarita Formation fossils of sand dollars and casts of a fossil sea cow.
  • Rent a kit to explore local fossils at home. Kit rentals are $10 per week and can be requested here (you do not need to be a teacher to request a rental).
  • Shop the geology and paleontology section of our online store

Mastodons and the Museum

June 1, 2023

A very special tooth in Santa Cruz County has captured the attention of the world. A widespread community campaign to recover a mastodon tooth that went missing after being recorded on a local beach culminated on May 30, 2023 when Jim Smith brought a special treasure to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Here’s How the Story Unfolded

As Memorial Day weekend ramped up in Santa Cruz County, a tourist with ties to the area spotted an unusual object on Rio Del Mar beach. Uncertain of what she was seeing, she photographed her unusual find and shared it on social media in the hopes that it would be identified. That’s when Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History Paleontology Collections Advisor, Wayne Thompson, posted online to clarify the significance of the discovery.

“This is (a) … molar tooth of the Pacific Mastodon Mammut pacificus, and an extremely important find. Give me a call when you get a chance…” Thompson wrote in response to the post.

When Thompson arrived at the location where the tooth was originally discovered, it was gone. A public call to find the tooth went out across multiple platforms, with local and international news outlets joining the Museum’s efforts to recover and protect the important specimen. On the morning of May 30, Jim Smith, a local man who had seen the news about the tooth, called the Museum.

“I was so excited to get that call,” said Liz Broughton, Visitor Experience Manager at the Museum. “Jim told us that he had stumbled upon it during one of his regular jogs along the beach, but wasn’t sure of what he had found until he saw a picture of the tooth on the news. He was so excited to hear it was a mastodon tooth and was eager to share it with the Museum.”

Mastodons in Santa Cruz County

The Museum has a long history with local mastodons. In 1980, 16-year-old Jim Stanton found a mastodon skull in Aptos Creek, which Thompson excavated and spent years meticulously repairing. Visitors can explore this skull, the only other locally recorded specimen, at the Museum of Natural History where it is on permanent exhibit.

Thompson first came to the Museum in 1976 as a high school sophomore, eager to continue to explore the world of paleontology. A youth employment program launched by former President Jimmy Carter granted the option to work here at the Museum alongside Charles Prentice and Frank Perry, and Thompson jumped at the chance. He prepared fossils, guided guests through the galleries, and tended to our collections, among other duties.

After retiring as a middle school science teacher recently, Thompson rejoined the Museum as Paleontology Collections Advisor. In this new role, he helps catalog collections, shares his expertise with staff and the community, and is working on digitizing our paleontology collection.

With the discovery of this new tooth, he and the Museum’s collections department have a slew of new tasks to look forward to as we work with State Parks to ensure the ongoing preservation, study, and display of this unique object.

More on Mastodons

The Pacific mastodon (Mammut pacificus) is one of many recognized mastodon species. M. pacificus is the newest species to be named. Once thought to be M. americanum, DNA analysis helped reveal that certain specimens actually belonged to a newly designated species. Mastodons generally roamed California from about 5 million to 10 thousand years ago, but were much more prevalent in the eastern areas of North America.

What’s Next For the Tooth

The Rio Del Mar tooth has a lot of potential to reveal information about the life history of mastodons, as well as what led to their extinction.

The mastodon skull on exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is that of a juvenile, and the discovery of this adult tooth on Rio Del Mar beach may provide the first evidence that a herd roamed Santa Cruz County during the last Ice Age.

We’re also interested in having the tooth analyzed with carbon dating and stable isotope analysis so that we may determine how long ago the individual lived, what it ate, and more. This information can help us know more about the implications of climate change and human impacts on the extinction of this species, as well as how they lived in the area.

The Museum looks forward to collaborating with State Parks on the ongoing care, study, and exhibition of this special specimen.

Photo 1: Museum staff Liz Broughton holding the Rio Del Mar tooth alongside the mastodon skull that is in the Museum’s collections
Photo 2: Jim Smith delivering the tooth
Photo 3: The mastodon skull found in 1980, on exhibit at the Museum
Photo 4: Rio Del Mar mastodon tooth

Naturalist Night: Reintroducing Fire (watch recording)

Fire is a natural part of the California landscape and plays an integral role in our local ecology. For millennia, Indigenous communities have stewarded the land with fire, but centuries of fire suppression, periods of extreme drought, and an expanding populace into the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) have led to increasingly intense fires that threaten communities. The burning question in recent years has been: how do we protect our communities from fire while also supporting “good fire” on the landscape?

Join a panel of experts from Amah Mutsun Land Trust, Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, and Sempervirens Fund at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History for a series of talks exploring this question and the many ways that local groups are managing the landscape both for and with fire.

Below is a recording of the presentation, recorded at the Museum on August 10, 2023.


Guide to Foraging

People have lived along the central coast of present-day California for millennia, surviving and thriving off of the resources that continue to surround us. Today, many of our region’s greatest naturalists are fishers, gardeners, and artists who connect with the natural world through their hobbies, work, or craft. Foraging is for many an entryway into a deeper connection with nature.

Negative Impacts of Foraging

Habitat degradation, increased frequency and intensity of fires, development, and climate change are all stressors that impact native species and reduce vital resources. Foraging has become a popular movement in recent years, often to the extreme detriment of widely sought-after plants like ginseng and white sage.

If you choose to forage, you can ensure that you are doing so in an ethical manner that supports the future health and sustainability  of our environment.

Foraging Ethics 101

1. Protect threatened species

When identifying plants to forage, confirm that population numbers are healthy  to avoid causing additional challenges for organisms already under stress. While many local native species have ethnobotanical qualities, there are also many non-native and invasive species that do, too. By selecting non-native species for forage, you are protecting local natives.

Resources: California Native Plant Society’s Rare Plant Inventory and Calscape.

2. Identification is Key

Never forage something unless you are certain of its ID. Even if you do not plan on consuming the item, if you get the ID wrong you could risk removing something that is rare or threatened. Use three or more points of identification, rather than one characteristic. Some things to consider include: bloom, stem, bark, color, smell, habitat, soil conditions, life cycle, and, in the case of mushrooms, spore prints.

Resources: Jepson eFlora identification key for California native plants, iNaturalist community science database and identification tool, Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz, and Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz.

3. Only Take What You Need, and Never Too Much

When foraging for a particular use, only take what you need. More importantly, never take more than what the environment can afford to give. Generally, only take one-tenth from any patch you see, and never from the only patch you find.

It’s a reciprocal relationship. We have a responsibility to take care of this plant—to be responsible for them. So it’s not about going out and just randomly taking. That’s really disrespectful, and it should never be done that way.

Chairman Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band
As quoted in How Foragers Reconnect with the Land by Erin Malsbury

4. Know Before You Go

Many parks and open spaces have regulations about or against foraging. It is important to know what the rules are for a given space before foraging.

5. Be Safe

Avoid harvesting near busy roads or hazardous sites and be mindful of any potential pollutants or contaminants that the organisms you’re harvesting might have been exposed to, such as pesticides and heavy metals.

Note About Mushrooms

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a fungal organism. There are different schools of opinion about whether it is better to cut a mushrooms above the soil, or pluck it entirely. If you are picking the mushroom to identify it, it is best to try to remove it in its entirety with as little damage to the surrounding area as possible. Always leave the area where you have picked from tidy. Picking older mushrooms and leaving younger ones is a good way of allowing the most amount of fruiting bodies to go through their full life cycle. Carry your mushrooms in a woven basket to let them continue to drop spores as you walk (this is also better than using plastic bins or bags for the shelf life of your mushrooms).

Seabright and the Castle: Then and Now with Dr. Gary Griggs

Santa Cruz’s scenic coastline has long enthralled residents and visitors alike, yet storms, relentless waves, and human impacts have and will continue to change our coastline. Join Dr. Gary Griggs for an examination of these processes through the lens of one of Santa Cruz’s most iconic beaches.

This program is in support of our latest exhibit Remembering Castle Beach.

More About the Talk

Castle (or Seabright) Beach went from being a very narrow seasonal beach to the one of the widest in the county following the construction of the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. Seabright has long been a unique neighborhood with a character that has survived for well over a century. It was considered to be out in the country by Santa Cruz standards when it was first developed as a seaside resort in the 1880s. For years a rather makeshift footbridge over the San Lorenzo River was the main route into town. Each winter it had to be removed to keep the river from washing it away, and Seabright residents had to walk across the railroad bridge, considered dangerous at the time as there was no pedestrian walk as there is today.


  • A recording and follow-up resources will be shared with registrants after the program.
  • This program will be in English.
  • We will be using the webinar format, meaning that participants’ video and mic functions will be disabled.
  • Reasonable accommodation requests can be made by emailing events@santacruzmuseum.org.

About the Speaker

Gary Griggs is a Distinguished Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, where he has taught for 54 years. He received his B.A. in Geological Sciences in 1965 from the University of California Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from Oregon State University in 1968. Gary served as the Director of the University’s Institute of Marine Sciences for 26 years, where he led the development of a Coastal Science Campus. His research, teaching, writing and lectures have been focused on the coast of California and include coastal processes, hazards, and the impacts of and responses to sea-level rise. In 1998 he was given the Outstanding Physical and Biological Sciences Faculty Award at U.C. Santa Cruz, and the Alumni Association honored him with a Distinguished Teaching Award in 2006. The California Coastal Commission and Sunset Magazine named him one of California’s Coastal Heroes in 2009, and in 2010 he was elected to the California Academy of Sciences. Gary chaired a committee in 2017 recommended by Governor Brown to update California’s sea-level rise projections. In 2016 he was appointed to the California Ocean Science Trust. Gary is also a member of the California Ocean Protection Council’s Science Advisory Team and served as chair of California’s 4th Climate Assessment Committee on Coasts and Ocean.

Gary has written 13 books including: Living with the Changing California Coast, Introduction to California’s Beaches and Coast, The California Coast from the Air, Coasts in Crisis – A Global Challenge, The Edge – The Pressured Past and Precarious Future of California’s Coast, Between Paradise and Peril – The Natural Disaster History of the Monterey Bay Region, and most recently The Ominous Ocean: Rogue Waves, Rip Currents and other Dangers along the Shoreline and at Sea.

Remembering Castle Beach: Stories from the Exhibit (recording)

Stroll back in time as you explore the history of Seabright Beach, once called Castle Beach, during this online exhibit preview for Museum Members in honor of the new exhibit, Remembering Castle Beach, opening June 11, 2022.

Executive Director Felicia Van Stolk and Collections Manager Kathleen Aston will take Members behind the scenes of the exhibit, sharing additional stories and a deeper look into the historic photographs, souvenirs, and artifacts that bring to life the heyday of the Scholl Marr Castle and look at how the nearby coastline has changed over time.


Reptiles and Amphibians of the West with Charles Hood

California is home to almost eighty species of “herps” — reptiles and amphibians. Get to know some of our common and uncommon neighbors, while digging into groundbreaking research about how lizards communicate (and explore the world) in wavelengths of color invisible to the human eye. From gila monsters to the common fence lizard of your backyard, the world of reptiles and amphibians will come alive during this presentation with Charles Hood, author of the new book Sea Turtles to Sidewinders and A Californian’s Guide to the Birds Among Us, and PhD candidates Jose Gabriel Martinez Fonseca (Northern Arizona University) and Erin Westeen (UC Berkeley).


Charles Hood is a Fulbright scholar, a former National Science Foundation Artist-in-Residence in Antarctica, and an author of Wild LA.

José Gabriel Martínez-Fonseca is a Nicaraguan biologist and wildlife photographer who has worked with amphibians and reptiles for over 12 years. He is currently a PhD student at Northern Arizona University.

Erin Westeen has done extensive fieldwork across western North America and the Neotropics and is currently a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, where she studies spiny lizards.

Collections Close-Up: Old Time Oology

All of our collections are special, but some of them are egg-squisite. The study of eggs and nests, historically referred to as oology, is a rich vein in the story of natural history museums. Museum egg collections have played a large role in critical conservation conversations, and continue to be relevant for contemporary research. True to this larger history — from mighty ostrich to minuscule hummingbird eggs, from 19th century birders to current digitization projects — eggs are an important part of your local natural history museum.

During this Collection Close-Up webinar, join Collections Manager Kathleen Aston on an exploration of our egg collection from the 1880s to the 1980s and beyond. We’ll also look at how birds feature in our current priorities, from community science to youth education.


About the series

Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Your support helps us steward our collections and offer educational programs that connect people with nature and science. Memberships start at just $15/year.

How Everyone Can Contribute to Pollinator Conservation with the Xerces Society

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is an international nonprofit organization that protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats through scientific research. They focus on pollinator conservation, endangered species conservation, and reducing pesticide use and impacts.

For this talk, Maddy Kangas, Monarch Butterfly Conservation Planner with the Xerces Society, will share:

The status of pollinators, including monarch butterflies, and need for conservation action
Monarch biology and habitat requirements
Land management practices to protect pollinators
Examples of pollinator habitat projects
How you can get involved (community science programs and more)
Additional resources and Q&A 


About the Speaker

Maddy Kangas serves as a Monarch Butterfly Conservation Planner and NRCS Partner Biologist for the Central Coast of California as part of the Xerces Society, providing technical assistance on monarch conservation and habitat creation for producers, landowners, and land managers. Her previous work has included integrated pest and pollinator management, habitat restoration, and community outreach and education. Maddy completed her master’s degree in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she researched both native bee community composition and pest insect presence within agriculturally based pollinator habitat restorations.

This program is in support of our new exhibit, Pollinators: Keeping Company With Flowers, on view January 15-March 6. Sponsored by 90.3 KAZU, Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, and UCSC’s Center for Agroecology.

Rockin’ Pop-Up: The Giants of our Solar System

Join the Geology Gents, Gavin and Graham, for the second installment of a three-part trilogy exploring the planets of our solar system. March will examine the icy and gaseous planets known as “the giants” — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Watch part one about the terrestrial planets.

About the Series: Join the Geology Gents, Gavin Piccione and Graham Edwards, for monthly conversations about rocks live on Facebook. Each month we’ll explore a different geologic topic, from Santa Cruz formations to tips for being a more effective rockhound. Submit your questions ahead of time by emailing events@santacruzmuseum.org and feel free to include pictures of rocks you’d like identified! Note: you do not need to have a Facebook account to be able to watch the program live.

Watch Past Pop-Ups
Read our blog Rock Record