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Vertebrates (or Craniata) include the well-known animals such as fish (Pisces), amphibians (Amphibia), reptiles (Reptilia), dinosaurs (Dinosauria, usually included in the Reptilia), birds (Aves, sometimes classed as feathered Reptiles or Dinosaurs), and mammals, including humans (Mammalia). Fossils of all these groups have been found in Kentucky except for the dinosaurs, which have the potential to be found in far western Kentucky, although none have been found to date.

The common feature of vertebrate animals is that they have a spinal column and associated vertebrae. In some animals, like sharks, the vertebrae are composed of cartilage. In other animals, like mammals and reptiles, vertebrae are composed of bone. Bones can be fossilized; cartilage is generally not fossilized. Vertebrate fossils are rare in Kentucky. Most reported fossils that look like bones, claws, or teeth, are actually fossils of other types of animals or are pseudofossils. Pseudofossils are rocks that look like fossils, but are not fossils. If you think you have found a fossil bone, look at the Recognizing fossil bones section first. Look at the criteria for identifying fossil bones, and see if the fossil you have looks like the fossils shown to determine if it is actually a bone or not. If after comparing your fossil to the other fossils, it appears that your fossil may be a fossil bone, try to match it to the fossils shown below in Vertebrate fossils found in Kentucky. If you have found a fossil bone in Kentucky, please call the Kentucky Geological Survey (859) 257-5500, so that we can document and verify the find.

Recognizing bone fossils

Vertebrate Fossils Found in Kentucky



Several amphibian fossils have been found in Kentucky. They were found in Mississippian sandstones on the margin of the Western Kentucky Coal Field. One amphibian was about 5 feet long and had a long, streamlined body. It probably lived most of the time in water and ate fish and other small amphibians and reptiles. The other amphibians were smaller, but probably similar.


Only one reptile fossil has been found in Kentucky, in Pennsylvanian rocks of the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field.

Take a look at the fossil

The image is a fossil trackway from McCreary County Kentucky. The sharp points at the end of the tracks indicate that the animal that made them had claws. The line down the center of the trackway is likely a tail drag. Therefore, its a four-legged animal (tetrapod) with claws and a tail. That makes it a reptile. This remains one of the oldest fossils of reptiles in the world. Slightly older skeletons of reptiles are found in fossil tree trunks in Nova Scotia. It is not surprising that a reptile fossil would be found in the coalfields of Kentucky because reptile fossils are well known in other coal fields ( Illinois , Ohio , West Virginia ). There is always the possibility that more reptile fossils will be found in Kentucky 's two coal fields, as well as in Pleistocene deposits .

There are also many fossils that are commonly misidentified as fossil reptiles. Many plant fossils from the coal fields have scale-like patterns that are commonly misinterpreted as fossil snakes or reptile skin.


Dinosaurs are usually classified as reptiles, but some authors give them their own class, Dinosauria. Dinosaur fossils have not been found in Kentucky . Cretaceous (the last period in the Age of Dinosaurs) sediments that have the potential of containing dinosaur fossils occur in the Jackson Purchase Region in extreme western Kentucky . Rocks across the rest of the state are older than the dinosaurs, so do not contain their fossils. However, many amateur collectors claim to have found dinosaur bones. These inevitably end up being some other fossil or a pseudofossil . Pseudofossils are rocks that have shapes similar to fossils, but are not really fossils. Fossils thought to be dinosaur teeth generally are horn corals or some other type of horn-shaped invertebrate fossil. Presumed dinosaur bones are often cephalopod (a shelled squid), plant (root and stem) fossils, or mineral nodules, such as siderite. Dinosaur eggs that have been reported are generally mineral nodules , either limestone or siderite. Dinosaur skin imprints that have been brought to the geological survey are actually bark impressions of fossil trees called scale trees (so-called because their bark looks like scales). These are all easy mistakes to make. Hoaxes also turn up on occasion. Be wary of trading or buying material claimed to be of dinosaur origin if it was found in Kentucky .


Bones from the giant Canadian goose and the American turkey have been found in the Quaternary sediments at Big Bone Lick,. Bird fossils have never been found in the Cretaceous and Tertiary (Paleogene and Neogene) sediments in the Jackson Purchase Region in extreme eastern Kentucky, but the potential for finding them exists.

Links to other sites regarding vertebrate fossils