National Fossil Day—now in its 4th year—may be in its infancy, but it has been 30 years in the making, according to Vince Santucci.

Santucci–Senior Geologist, Paleontologist, and Washington Liaison for the National Park Service (Geologic Resources Division)–discussed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act and National Fossil Day by phone a week into the current government shutdown.

Paleontology vs Archeology

“Initially in the 70’s,” he explained, “there was an interest in developing protective legislation for both archeological resources and for paleontological resources.”

Many people–including some magazines upon recent review of their websites–confuse paleontology and archeology. While both revolve around ancient remains, they are distinctly different sciences.

Archeology is the study of ancient human remains and artifacts.  The key word here is “human”. Paleontology is the study of fossils—ancient mammals, dinosaurs, fish, bacteria: prehistoric life unrelated to humans.

Santucci credits this confusion as one of the reasons to have separate legislation for the two respective sciences.

The Archeological Resources Protection Act was signed into law in 1979, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the paleontological equivalent became law.

Fossil Theft

“As part of that very long process to establish the new law, we wanted to make sure that it had positive consequences in a wide range of aspects for paleontology. It wasn’t just a law-enforcement law to provide stricter penalties for theft of fossils.”

“What amazed me,” Santucci said, discussing his graduate fieldwork during the mid-1980’s, “as I was out in the field learning the geology of the Badlands, working with visiting geologists, that we were encountering people that were stealing fossils from within Badlands National Park on a regular basis.”

He described one person who had been collecting fossils for 25 years from that very park.

“When he was given a $50 fine for that, I realized that the need for some sort of legislation similar to the Archeological Resources Protection Act was needed by the Federal Government.”

These were but some of the instances that prompted him to obtain law enforcement training.  He explained that he “came on board in 1991 at Petrified Forest National Park as the government’s only ‘pistol-packing paleontologist’.”

Creation of National Fossil Day

The National Forest Service, the Smithsonian and the Department of the Interior worked together on a report to Congress in 2000, according to Santucci.  A lot of the language from this report was used in the legislation that became the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

“One of the provisions is one sentence,” he said, “and it basically provides a mandate that the federal agencies shall help to increase public awareness about fossils and paleontology.”

Based on that one sentence, those working to implement the new law decided to “go out and make some partners, do something positive, and establish this National Fossil Day.”

President Obama – Appreciation in a Big Way

Santucci said its popularity was at once a surprise and a success.  It “went viral within the Department of Interior and wound up going to the White House.”

In October 2010—the first National Fossil Day—the National Park Service was presented with a letter from President Obama, the very president who had signed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act into law the previous year.

“Our Chief Public Information Officer surprised us and showed up on the National Mall in his class-A dress uniform, and he presented to us a letter from President Obama.”

This was, Santucci continued with no small amount of enthusiasm, an important and meaningful gesture to those in the National Park Service (NPS).  The law that brought this event to light took 30 years, and here were wishes for “a wonderful first National Fossil Day” from the President who made it possible.

And the National Park Service is indeed grateful.

Santucci mentioned that the NPS “is working to extend their appreciation in a big way to President Obama.”

(Stay tuned!  While they are not ready to publically announce their plans, you can read more about that exciting news on this blog when the moment arrives.)

Why mid-October?

For the past four years, National Fossil Day has been held on a date in mid-October, and that date is significant.

“The absolute first organization that we reached out to offering the idea for National Fossil Day was an organization called the America Geosciences Institute (AGI). The reason that we targeted AGI is that the National Park Service was already partnering with AGI for Earth Science Week. Earth Science Week is held every year, and it’s been going on for 15 years prior to National Fossil Day. It is an effective outreach program during the second week of October every year promoting earth science.  Through this, AGI reaches between 20-25 million school children and teachers across the country.”

Much of the Fossil Day initiative focuses heavily on activities geared toward children.  Part of that may be deliberate.  When asked about challenges he sees to paleontology in general today, Santucci was quick to point out our country’s struggle with science education in schools.

But he was equally quick to point out that the goal of National Fossil Day is to include people of all ages.

“It’s not just designed for scientists, and it’s not just designed for teachers, and it’s not just designed for kids or federal bureaucrats. It is designed to reach out and touch anybody who’s interested in fossils in any way that they are.”

Interest Grows

With 60 new partners, National Fossil Day now has over 280 partners.  They include scientific organizations, libraries, museums, educational organizations and amateur groups.

The NPS employed two people full-time in order to maintain the National Fossil Day website and update information from their partners.

Santucci mentioned that some partners, for myriad reasons, are unable to celebrate on the actual day designated as National Fossil Day.

“Some of our partners will have their events in the middle of summer because their site might be closed down during the winter months, just because of budget and weather and things like that.”

The NPS response?

“We say ‘absolutely’. It doesn’t have to be on the second Wednesday of October to be National Fossil Day. It’s in the whole spirit of promoting learning and science education.”

“We never envisioned when we sat down with the American Geosciences Institute and said ‘let’s try to establish this National Fossil Day’ that it would have grown as it has. So we have colleagues over in England, Australia, Germany, and China who are saying ‘let’s take this idea and go international and create an International Fossil Day’.  So there’s a whole team that’s plotting out our next undertaking.”

He also described plans to work in more depth with the Children’s Summer Learning Program, linked to libraries throughout the country.

“We’re going to do a whole campaign to help every library across America to establish a reading program called ‘Dig Into Reading’ where it features dinosaurs and fossils.  Libraries will have books available and displays and exhibits to attract kids to come in during the summer and pick up a book or two and read as part of their summer vacations.”

“National Fossil Day has evolved into something far bigger than we had ever anticipated. And the support from our partners has just been tremendous. And we never would have been able to accomplish the things that we have without that very strong National Fossil Day partnership.”

National Fossil Day 2013 – Government Shutdown

When discussing this day and its creation, the government shutdown had already been in place for several days.  The idea that it might stretch through mid-October seemed remote at that time but possible.

In response to questions about it, Santucci was optimistic.

“The National Park Service and the other federal partners like the Smithsonian may not be able to participate on October 16th.  But the vast majority of our 280 partners are non-federal.  And they continue to move forward; they are going to sustain activities. So Congress hasn’t shut them down.”

He finished by saying, “Yes, it’s going to go on. We may not be able to participate on the National Mall as we’d hoped, but we’re happy for all of those events that will occur nationwide.”


For more information on National Fossil Day, please see this link when the government shutdown is over:

To see a picture of Vince Santucci, go to page 32 in this book: Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber

For more information on Earth Science Week:

Many, many thanks to Vince Santucci for his time and his valuable insight! 

And a T-Rex-sized thank you to everyone who brought about and continues to work on National Fossil Day!

NFD 2010 - Sketch for logo

(Sketch of the 2010 National Fossil Day logo provided by Vince Santucci)