ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Amanda Cantrell, a budding paleontologist, didn’t know fossils would change her life until she found her first one about six years ago.
“We were finding little marine fossils in the Sandia Mountains. I didn’t know where to look before and then I began paying attention to what was in the rocks,” she says of that first fossil hunting expedition with her fiance, Tom Suazo, who is also studying to be a paleontologist.
To share that sense of wonder and discovery, Cantrell and four other experts from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, where she is an intern, will help other fossil hunters, rock hounds and prospectors identify their personal discoveries at the museum’s first Fossil Roadshow, from noon to 5 p.m. May 5.
Cantrell’s newfound passion for fossils led her to an important discovery.
Two years ago, while fossil hunting with a museum crew, she discovered the first baby Pentaceratops in the badlands of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin in the northwestern part of the state.
“I was amazed. I spotted it from far away. It was purple and reddish blue. I walked up the hill and I knew it wasn’t a rock. I knew exactly what it was,” she says. “New Mexico is chocked full of fossils. Not too many people recognize how super special New Mexico is.”
The museum’s chief curator, Spencer Lucas, a researcher who has written more than 1,000 scientific articles, says the first adult Pentaceratops skull was found in the 1920s: “However, in 2011 Amanda found the first baby (juvenile) Pentaceratops skull. Great discovery, given how little we know about how these dinosaurs grew through their own life cycle.”
Alicia Borrego Pierce, the museum’s deputy director, says Cantrell is a great asset to the museum’s paleontology program. She and the other experts can help inspire visitors at the roadshow: “It’s rare to have this many scientists on the floor at the same time.”
Other experts from Mama’s Minerals, a co-sponsor of the event, will have free hands-on exhibits for children, including a search through shale for marine fossils, geode cracking and a station to make a pendant or necklace from native minerals.
Lucas, who will be available at the show, says the event will be a great opportunity for adults and children to explore the rich geologic history of the state: “All children love fossils, and fossils are part of our natural history and heritage. So, I think parents will want to bring their children to … develop a better understanding of the incredible natural history of New Mexico.”
The state’s dry climate and eroded rock formations formed over millions of years preserve fossils like few other places in the world. “New Mexico is a magnet for dinosaur collectors,” Lucas says.
Other museum experts include Suazo; Justin Spielmann, an active research paleontologist; and Larry Rinehart, a paleo preparer, who organizes and conducts digs, runs the preparation and exhibition labs and manages volunteers.
Beyond the roadshow, the museum has volunteer programs for people who would like more time with dinosaur fossils.
Of course, New Mexico has more to offer than just fossils.
The Gold Panning Association of New Mexico will show visitors how to separate gold from sand, says Wes Lovett, president of the association. “When they see the glitter in pan that’s what gets them hooked,” he says.
While finding gold may seem like a path to wealth, Lovett, the grandson of a prospector, who has been looking for treasure most of his life, says prospecting is more about the adventure than the reward.
“For me, every $10 I’ve gotten in gold, I’ve spent $100. It’s a hobby like golf,” he says.
Picking up rocks off the ground and collecting fossils of plants and small invertebrate animals is mostly allowed, according to websites of the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
For more detail, Yvette Sandoval, a manager at Mama’s Minerals, says “Gem Trails of New Mexico,” by James R. Mitchell, is a great guide with detailed maps for rock hounds and fossil hunters.
She says people are always bringing in their discoveries: “We’ve seen rare meteorites, really cool fossils and petrified wood.”
“The Fossil Roadshow will connect people to what is right underneath their feet,” says Laura Randolph, president of Mama’s Minerals. “People are already picking stuff up. This is an opportunity for them to bring it in and find out how old it might be and what it means. This is a way to connect to the community through the wonder of the earth.”