Amateur Spotlight: Mark McKinzie

Editor’s Note: In this issue, Mark McKinzie of the Dallas Paleontological Society responds to questions asked by Eleanor Gardner.  A retired geologist, Mark has co-authored several books on fossils; the Color Guide to Pennsylvanian Fossil of North Texas should be available soon!

Mark McKinzie
Mark McKinzie

What is your background in geology/paleontology?  I believe DPS President, Lee Higginbotham, mentioned that you worked in the oil industry at one point?

I have a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Geology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I graduated in 1980 and immediately went to work in the energy industry. I worked for a number of companies in Oklahoma and Texas from 1980 until my retirement in September 2013. I have lived and worked in the Dallas-Forth Worth (DFW) area of north Texas since 1992.

How did you first discover your passion for fossil collecting?

I was hooked on fossil collecting since I was a small, skinny, nerdy boy.  I was born in Harvey (a south suburb of Chicago) and moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois when I was nine years old. The new housing   development we moved into dug the basement foundations into glacial moraine deposits from the last retreating continental Ice Age glaciers. The gravels contained many exotics including basement rocks from the Canadian Shield and abundant fossils from the lower Paleozoic of Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Most of the fossils were common marine invertebrates including brachiopod shells and crinoid columnals. Crinoid stem sections were so abundant that we called them fossilized “Indian beads”. I still have a jar full of crinoid stems from my childhood collecting there.

How long have you been collecting fossils (when did you begin)?

I am currently 57 years old so I have been collecting for almost fifty years now.

How do you identify/organize your fossils (i.e., which texts or other resources do you use, or which professional paleontologists do you consult)?

Like a lot of children I grew up with, my first fossil ID book was the Golden Nature Guide to “Fossils – A guide to prehistoric life”. Once I graduated from college and went to work for Mobil Oil Corporation (now Exxon-Mobil), I had access to their extensive paleontology libraries at their Oklahoma City and Dallas offices. In addition, I joined the Paleontological society to get access to the Journal Of Paleontology. It was hard for non-professional (amateur) fossil collectors to get access to scientific journals at a public library before the Internet so I was extremely lucky to work for an oil company back in the 1980s and 1990s.

What to do if I find a possible fossil new to science. Using the latest issues of Journal of Paleontology and Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, I look for what authors are currently researching specific fossil groups and use those email addresses as initial contacts when I find something new or undescribed. I then introduce myself via email and send pictures to the academics of my new finds and if they are interested (or know another researcher who is interested) then I donate them to the appropriate repository.

What was it like to discover the ancient Texas “supershark” at the Jacksboro site?  And what was it like to work with the American Museum of Natural History on this project?

I have been collecting the late Pennsylvanian Finis Shale at the Lost Creek Reservoir in Jacksboro, Jack County, Texas since late 1992. I was always aware of the possibility of finding good and interesting marine vertebrate material from this locality since the original environment of deposition was favorable for preserving such remains. Besides shark teeth, I had seen scraps of indeterminate ctenacanthid shark shagreen (skin) for years and was always hoping to find something more complete. The day I found my “top of the skull” portion of the Texas “supershark”, I knew I had something special but at the time I didn’t know who to contact. Years later in 2014, when DPS member Bob Williams found nearly the identical section of an even larger shark skull from Jacksboro then I knew it was time to contact somebody as these specimens were too important to sit in a private collection. That is how I ended up contacting Dr. John Maisey at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York who I knew was a prominent Paleozoic shark researcher from all the articles and papers he had written over the years. The staff at the AMNH are a  pleasure to work with and the whole donation process was painless.

Please tell us about your collection. How many specimens are in your collection?

Approximately 1800 different species and over 2000 specimens. My primary interest over the years is Paleozoic echinoderms and trilobites, Permian vertebrates, and Cretaceous marine fossils. My love of trilobites goes back to my early collecting days in Illinois as finding a complete trilobite was always a “holy grail” of mine. It is hard to live in the DFW area of north Texas without being interested in Cretaceous age fossils as you can’t help but find marine fossils wherever constriction is going on in the metroplex.

How many specimens have you donated to various institutions? 

Dozens over the years, including Ordovician age echinoderms from southern Oklahoma and west Texas to the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, TX; new genera of lower Permian amphibian and reptile skulls to the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, OK; various Cretaceous marine vert and invert material to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, TX; late Pennsylvanian marine shark and bony fish material from north Texas to the American Museum of Natural History in NY; and miscellaneous specimens to other institutions.

What led you to donate fossils to these institutions?

I have a good enough overall knowledge of various fossil groups from any particular area that I collect to know when I find something new from any given fauna or flora. If I think it is new then I start to look for a researcher (via literature and internet searches) who might be interested in describing it.

 How did it happen that you began donating fossils?

I understand the importance of “new” fossil finds increasing the overall knowledge base of paleontology. Every new fossil is another link in the chain that increases our knowledge about the wonderful tree of life that all organisms (extinct and extant) are a part of. A fossil sitting in my cabinet drawer has “no value added” to the scientific community if it is never described, illustrated and reposited where anyone with a valid reason can get access to it in the future.

What is your most favorite fossil that you discovered?  Why?

My favorite fossil is whatever I am collecting at the time. When I was younger I was a lot more possessive about my fossil collection but as I get older I realize that I truly can’t take my babies with me.

When did you first begin working on the Pennsylvanian Fossils of North Texas book, and why?  What does the new edition include?

The co-author of the book, John McLeod, was instrumental in getting the first edition of the book done. We both are enthusiastic collectors of late Pennsylvanian cephalopods which north Texas has in abundance. During our numerous collecting trips to the Lake Bridgeport and Jacksboro areas of north Texas, we both became discouraged by the lack of a single ID reference for all the fossils we collect here. Hence the seed of the idea was germinated.

Since publication of the first addition in 2003, the long-term drought of north Texas (2010 – 2015), has exposed numerous new fossil collecting areas along Lake Bridgeport. Enough new and different material was collected to warrant a second edition of the book. It was decided to redo it in color as publication costs have been reduced over the years. We anticipate that the  Color Guide to Pennsylvanian Fossil of North Texas (CGPFNT) will be available for purchase on soon. We expanded both the collecting locality section and the number of identified genera.

Do you have any recommendations for other fossils clubs/societies who are trying to get children & teens interested in paleontology?  What is your favorite memory from an outreach event?

Children like me enjoyed two things about paleontology; 1) digging in the dirt and 2) finding fossils. Our organization, the Dallas Paleontological Society (DPS) holds numerous outreach events where we have 1) kid friendly fossil collecting trips (digging in the dirt) and 2) fossil tub give-aways (ALWAYS give away lots of fossils to children). Nothing hooks a child on paleontology like a holding a recognizable fossil in their grubby little paws that they collected themselves!

Learn more

Read about the discovery of the Texas “supershark” here and at

Additional details about the discovery and locality can be found in this article in the Jacksboro Newspapers.