This is how you can tell the difference between a rock and a fossil just by licking it.

Let’s say an archaeologist returns from one of his excavating trips and hands you a fossil and says, “it is a dinosaur bone.” You get so excited. At long last, you can finally brag to your mates at school that you got a T-rex at home. Your mates follow you back home from school to witness your discovery of the century. They see the dang thing, it’s real, or it looks like its real? Whatever. One of your friends begins to lick it, and, out of who knows what, he claims, “it’s just a piece of rock.” Like seriously, what? Dear friends, let’s learn how you can really tell the difference between a rock and a fossil. Caution: Spoiler alerts!

Paleontology 101

First thing first, a crash course on fossils and dinosaur bones. According to paleontologists, a fossil bone probably has all of it’s internal bone structure, and has all the features of a regular bone you’d normally find anywhere. Simply put it, its just a huge bone, nevertheless. Whereas a rock, on the other hand, will be solid and concrete, having a compact internal structure, being uniform, and pretty smooth.

Although some rocks are porous and might display features resembling a bone, but all rocks are categorized into three types. These are igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. Most igneous rocks are easy to identify, they all have a well defined structure. But the sedimentary and metamorphic ones are the ones that play bonelike. However, they would simply lack any of the signs of internal bone structures that a real dinosaur bone would exhibit. 

The Paleontology Society responds to dozens of queries each year. People occasionally report discovering “vaguely bone-shaped objects” and submit them in, thinking that it might be a dinosaur bone, hoping that the museum will take them in for a ransom. Spoiler alert: it often turns out disappointing to find out that they haven’t uncovered the discovery of the century in their backyard. Hard miss! And these are common experiences the society often report.

Image: Natural History Museum

Where Can I Find A Fossil?

Truth is, there is no underlying rule of thumb that distinguishes rock from bone just by looking at it. Although there are a few principles that can definitely help you tell the difference. And one of them is simple enough, where do you look for fossils? So if you came across a “dinosaur egg” in the earth while you were mowing your lawn, there’s a pretty good chance that its just a rock. Fossils aren’t  hiding in plain site. Real fossils are likely found in particular rock formation zone — which are often label in certain state booklets and maps for easy reference.

And, before you pick up an axe and shovel for digging, though, you’ll have to familiarize yourself where you’re even going, the type of land these deposits might be found, and what the rules are in your state concerning fossil collection. According to law, it is a crime to be seen digging any land that doesn’t belong to you for who knows what you’re digging for. You just head off into the woods and start digging “no man’s” land, then will you realize that “no man’s” land is actually “everybody’s” land. You’re WARNED!

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus | aerial shoot of paleontologist excavatin for a dinosaur fossil

There are authorized agencies responsible for filling out necessary paperwork before any excavation is carried out. Least we forget the fact that trained paleontologists are much better qualified at properly documenting and excavating fossil sites. So check up with your local geological survey for further assistance. But here’s that all important question we’re addressing: how on Earth can you really tell that this is indeed a fossil bone and not a rock?

Its Just A Lick

Image: Discovery Channel / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Now, let’s assume the scenario aforementioned, you get hold of something that’s seemingly fossil-like. Regardless of how you got it, you believe by all odds that it is a bone. It doesn’t matter where you got it, and if you even compare it with surrounding rocks, remember that fossils are not rocks; and surely will they look quite different in color and texture from similar deposits. But if you’re curious enough to notice a break on the specimen, it’s internal structure might give you a clue as to what it is.

The bone’s internal structure will be intact, you’ll be able to see the interior of it’s biological composition. And, you can try the tongue test, too, if you’re in doubt. Lick it, if your tongue sticks ever so slightly to the bone, there’s a good chance it could be a fossil, but if it doesn’t, spoiler, you just licked a dusty good o’l rock, pal. Their porous nature makes them cling to your tongue, as the air pockets inside suck and hold onto your tongue. Caution: get a glass of water nearby, just in case.

These are few guidelines to follow if you want to determine that the bonelike piece junior brought home is actually a dinosaur fossil. You need not earn accolades to tell the difference of a rock from some 100-million-year-old bone. You need just a lick and some common sense.

Let us know if you’ve ever come across a fossil before?

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Fri, Dec 03, 2021.

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