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Wild Cincy: Expert gives tips on fossil hunting in the Tri-State

Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-04 09:11:28-04

CINCINNATI -- Brenda Hunda wanted to be a paleontologist at 3 years old.

As a teen growing up in Alberta, Canada, she hunted dinosaur fossils for fun, eventually donating three Tyrannosaurus rex teeth to a local museum.

"I never really outgrew that," she said.

Hunda has been a paleontologist for 15 years and currently works as the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where she overseas exhibits and research. In addition to studying fossils of dinosaurs and other large mammals, some of Hunda's most important work is derived from rocks right here in Cincinnati.

"I think a lot of people are familiar with our medical history and medical sciences," Hunda said. "But in terms of the geologic sciences -- geology and paleontology -- we are world-famous."

Brenda Hunda of the Cincinnati Museum Center at Rapid Run Creek. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The Tri-State region is surrounded by rocks with marine deposits from the Ordovician Period, a time when an ancient ocean covered most of the United States more than 450 million years ago. When she's not in a lab or office, Hunda conducts research outside, surveying limestone rock in the area looking for fossils that come from this time period.

When she's out in the field, Hunda is usually on the hunt for trilobites, an extinct group of arthropods most closely related to today's scorpions and horseshoe crabs. Although they're typically smaller than a dime, trilobites are very significant in the world of paleontology.

"It's what we call an index fossil," Hunda said. "Index fossils tell us about where we are in terms of time in the geologic record when we find them." 

Trilobites are abundant in this region, which is why they attract scientists from all over the world and why they are Ohio's official state fossil. These fossils contain important information about environmental changes and give clues about what life used to be like on Earth millions of years ago.

"I love that I can come here and pull a rock out and see a fossil that nobody has seen before," Hunda said while walking through a creek bed in Rapid Run Creek. "It's like being transported back in time."

Hunda gave WCPO a tour of this creek, which is one of her prime fossil hunting locations in Cincinnati.

Rapid Run Creek is one of Dr. Brenda Hunda's routine spots for fossil hunting in Cincinnati. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"It's usually pretty cool, and the water running through here allows me to do the work I need to do," Hunda said. "But most importantly...the continuous (fossil) record we find at Rapid Run is pretty important for our research."

Another part of Hunda's job is to educate people about how to safely look for fossils in the area. These are a few tips she has for beginners:

  • Only go to designated areas for fossil hunting or local creek beds with safe parking options.
  • Make a note of where you find fossils to accurately record their history.
  • Bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
  • Bring a hat and bug spray and wear sturdy boots.

Hunda and her team use trilobites and other fossils they find at locations like Rapid Run Creek to continue their work in recording the Earth's history. And she hopes her efforts help inspire other Cincinnatians to do the same.

"Part of my job, and one I'm very passionate about, is teaching families about the relevance of this resource that we have and the global significance," she said. "Not for just going out and having fun in the creek one day, but really learning that science has an important place in Cincinnati."

Watch her explain why this area is significant and more fossil hunting tips in the short video above.