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A Fossil Hunter's Guide to the Whitewater Gorge

The Whitewater River has cut the Whitewater Gorge into an ancient limestone and shale layer named the Whitewater Formation.  Most of the recognizable fossils in the Whitewater Formation are from skeletons of animals that lived about 435 million years ago on the bottom of a warm shallow sea that covered this area. Wave action in this ancient environment broke many skeletons before they were buried in the soft muds and later turned to rock.

Where to Look for Fossils

The Gorge Park sites labeled on this map are easy to find and have produced many very nice specimens.

Look for the best and cleanest specimens in rubble piles near the bottoms of slopes along roads and creeks where nature and time have gently washed them from the hard rock. Excellent, delicate specimens can be found firmly attached to small collectible slabs in these rubble piles. It is never a good idea to hunt fossils too near roads, on steep banks or to crawl or hunt on or below cliffs.

Fossil hunters must be careful of automobile traffic and should always obtain permission before exploring private property. Fossils may be collected from rubble piles in Whitewater Valley Gorge Park.

There were many kinds of animals living in Richmond's ancient ocean. Some fossils, like clams, snails, and corals, are familiar to us because they are common animals in modern oceans.  Other types, like the water filtering brachiopods and twig-like or sheet-like colonies of tiny bryozoan individuals, are not so familiar to us because they are not obvious animals in modern seas. Still others, such as the bug-like trilobites, have become extinct, and it is hard for us to understanding what they were like or what they did in ancient seas. No fossil of a backboned animal has yet been found in the Whitewater Formation.

Common Gorge Fossils

CoralsIllustration: Corals

Were common, but there were not very many kinds. Most were large, horn-shaped shells, but some lived in Colonial, encrusting sheets, like bryozoa. Colonial corals have star-shaped pores which are much larger than those of bryozoa. Fossil corals, like modern ones, did not move around, but captured larger food particles from moving seawater.

Brachiopods (Brack/-ee-oh-pods)Illustration: Brachiopods

Many kinds are found in the Gorge's Whitewater formation. Fossils have two, hinged shells and many specimens show a small round or triangular hole in the shell near the hinge. A stalk protruded through this hole and fastened an individual to something on the sea floor where it filtered food particles from the water.

SnailsIllustration: Snails

Like bivalves, most had shells that dissolved soon after burial. Fossils are mostly shell fillings or impressions. Cyclonema was one local snail which had a preservable shell. Fossil snails, like their modern cousins, crawled around the bottom scraping algae and other small food particles from rocks and plants.

Trilobites (Try/-low-bites)Illustration: Trilobites

Were mostly small, bug or crab-like scavengers that found food on and in the bottom muds. Sometimes trilobite tracks and burrow fillings are found. Like modern insects and crabs, trilobites shed many jointed skins as they grew, but these fragile skeletons were easily broken apart by wave action.  Usually only pieces are found.

Bivalves (By/-valves)Illustration: Bivalves

Or Clams, most of which wandered around filtering food from water, were very common. There were many kinds. Most did not have an easily preservable shell; thus most fossils are impression on the bottoms of bryozoan colonies which grew over them, or mud filings which hardened after seeping into a shell that was not quite closed at burial.

Bryozoa (Bry-oh-zoh/-ah)Illustration: Bryozoa

Are related to and fed like brachiopods, but individuals were much smaller and lived in tiny, pin-sized pores which can sometimes be seen in the smooth, ridged, or bumpy surfaces of the best twig-like or sheet-like fossil colonies.

Additional Resources

Material from the Whitewater Valley Gorge Park "A Fossil Hunter's Guide" brochure distributed by the Richmond Parks and Recreation department.


Location Richmond, Indiana Admission Free Hours Public Access

Walking tour information available at the Park office
Richmond Parks and Recreation Department
2200 E. National Road
Richmond, IN  47374
Phone 765.983.7275
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