Art Contest 2023

illustration National Fossil Day stamp with postmark

About the NFD Art Contest

Theme: “The Rise of Ancient Life in our National Parks and Monuments”

The National Park Service and National Fossil Day partners are sponsoring an art contest to celebrate the 14th annual National Fossil Day. The 2023 National Fossil Day celebration is scheduled for Wednesday, October 11, 2023, during Earth Science Week. In recognition of the amazingly preserved marine invertebrates and vertebrates found deep within Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, our theme this year celebrates the diversity of life that existed during the Paleozoic era. The 2023 National Fossil Day poster showcases ancient marine life from the Ste. Genevieve Formation, which was deposited in a warm shallow sea. At Mammoth Cave it preserves complete crinoids (sea lilies, relatives to starfish (also known as seastars) and sea urchins) and a rich diversity of fishes going back to the Middle Mississippian Period (350–340 million years ago). The Mississippian Period was part of the late Paleozoic Era.

The Paleozoic Era (541–252 million years ago), which roughly translates to the “Age of Ancient Life”, was the portion of time when all major groups of organisms evolved and began to flourish, forming complex ecosystems. This includes the rise of algae, plants, fungi, and the major groups of animals such as arthropods, mollusks, brachiopods, echinoderms, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and our early reptile-like pre-mammalian ancestors, the synapsids. These organisms, however, did not appear in the fossil record all at once, but gradually evolved over time during the seven geologic periods that form the Paleozoic Era.

The National Park Service has numerous parks and monuments with unique records of fossils dating to the Paleozoic Era. Our 2023 National Fossil Day Art Contest will challenge participants to choose one or more Paleozoic periods and the parks that represents those periods, and create a visual piece based the fossils found at that time and place. Here are some examples of the National Park Service units that represent the seven periods of the Paleozoic:


The earliest of the Paleozoic subdivisions is the Cambrian Period (539–485 million years ago), which preserves a fossil record exhibiting a great appearance and radiation of some of the major groups of life in the fossil records. Sometimes referred as the “Cambrian explosion”, we see the rise of algae, early arthropods such as trilobites, and early vertebrate relatives such as Pikaia. There were also strange and primitive arthropod (animals with jointed appendages) relatives such as the five-eyed Opabinia, the bizarre spined and multilegged Hallucigenia (considered to be a relative to modern velvet worms), and the early macro-predator Anomalocaris, an arthropod relative that had two large spiked appendages to capture prey. Though there was a great diversity of life during the Cambrian, these organisms still only occurred in the ancient warm seas, and life on land was not possible at this time as the atmosphere was oxygen-poor. Cambrian fossils, particularly trilobites and ancient trackways (trace fossils), are found at Antietam National Battlefield, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Death Valley National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Great Basin National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, Yellowstone National Park, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and other national parks.


The Ordovician (485–444 million years ago) saw more complex invertebrate animals evolve, such as brachiopods, mollusks, echinoderms, and the giant 2 meter (6.6 feet)-long filter-feeding arthropod Aegirocassis (a relative of Anomalocaris). The Ordovician preserves evidence of the rise of early eurypterids, popularly known as “sea scorpions.” These arthropods were some of the first animals to venture onto land during the Ordovician, and a few at this time (such as Pentecopterus) grew more than 2 meters long. However, the largest predators in the ancient seas of the Ordovician were not arthropods, but giant cephalopods (the group of mollusks that contain squids and octopus). These giant cephalopods had long cone-like shells. Some genera such as Cameroceras reached more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) in length, while Endoceras is estimated to have reached almost 5.7 meter (19 feet) long. It was also during this time that plants began to colonize the land. These early non-vascular plants were similar to today’s liverworts, and were mostly restricted to shorelines. Extinctions of some groups occurred at the end of the Ordovician during a time of volcanic activity, changes in sea level, and climate changes associated with an ice age. Ordovician fossils have been found at Buffalo National River, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Death Valley National Park, Great Basin National Park, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Natchez Trace Parkway, Ozark National Scenic Riverway, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and other national parks.


The Silurian Period (444–419 million years ago) was time when life expanded on the land and into fresh water systems. Vascular plants, such as Cooksonia, were able to move further away from shorelines to form early miniature versions of forests along freshwater streams and lakes. Early terrestrial arthropods such as the millipedes, like Pneumodesmus, and large spider-like arachnids called trigonotarbids inhabited terrestrial environments. Traversing both land and water, eurypterids became the dominant predators of the Silurian. Eurypterus was a common eurypterid in North America during the Silurian, reaching 23 centimeters (9 inches) in length. However, Pterygotus was a giant eurypterid that reached 1.75 meters (5.7 feet) in length. Trilobites, such as Calymene, were still a very diverse group of arthropods. Large Silurian invertebrate fossils are especially prominent at Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska. In a vast array of different strata which preserves brachiopods, bivalves (including the bivalve genus Pycinodesma), large gastropods, and algal buildups with the calcareous sponge Aphrosalpinx. Fish began to diversify during the Silurian including agnathan (jawless) fishes (which includes today’s lampreys and hagfish), many being simple filter feeders or algae grazers. We also see early gnathostome (jawed) fishes which include the ancestors to sharks, bony fish, and placoderms. Silurian fossils can be found at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Death Valley National Park, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and others.


The Devonian Period (419–359) saw a great radiation of plant and aquatic vertebrate life called the Devonian explosion. The Devonian is also often referred to the “age of fishes”, reflecting fish becoming highly diverse, filling a number of niches in both marine and freshwater habitats. Fish at this time were the dominant vertebrates, with some reaching 3 meters (near 10 feet) in length. One early giant fish was Dunkleosteus, a large 4 meter (13 foot)-long placoderm who was the apex predator of the Devonian seas in North America and Africa. Dunkleosteus had powerful blade-like jaws strong enough to cut fish in half. At the same time, a large placoderm called Titanichthyes evolved to be a filter-feeding fish, similar to today’s whale sharks and basking sharks. Sharks at this time were also larger and looked more like today’s sharks. Species such as Cladoselache and Ctenacanthus either used speed or enlarge dorsal fin spines to protect themselves from predators like Dunkleosteus. Fossils of Dunkleosteus and Cladoselache have been found at Death Valley National Park. From fish, the first terrestrial vertebrates (tetrapods) appeared in the fossil record. Creatures such as Tiktaalik, Icthyostega, and Acanthostega, evolved limbs that helped them traverse submerged logjams, and also climb onshore. The Devonian also saw the first recognizable trees evolved at this time, forming the first large-scale forests across the ancient landscapes around the world. Some of these forests also had giant tree-like mushrooms, like Prototaxites. These forests also had early tree ferns, giant horsetails, and seed ferns. Increased weathering from the new forests may have contributed to a major extinction event near the end of the Devonian. Arthropods, including hints of the first true insects, were still ever-present, with some trilobites being common fossils found in marine deposits in the Devonian. Brachiopods flourished are reached their acme of taxonomic diversity witnessing the last stand of the atrypids. Common brachiopod genera found in the National Parks include Stringocephalus, Alaskothyris, Atrypa, Eleutherokomma, and various genera of gypidulids. Devonian fossils have been found at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Death Valley National Park, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Denali National Park and Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Grand Canyon National Park, Noatak National Preserve, Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Park, and others.


The Mississippian Period (359–323 million years ago) saw the beginning of the formation of the supercontinent Pangea and a number of seaways and rich coastal environments forming. On land, forests of tree ferns and early conifers great expanded, forming dense rainforests. Insects, amphibians, and early reptiles were flourishing. The seas were rich with life, with many species of brachiopods, mollusks, corals, bryozoans, and echinoderms forming reef-like mounds that supported a large variety of fish. With placoderms going extinct at the end of the Devonian, sharks became the dominant fish group at this time, filling niches left vacant by placoderms. Little parrotfish-like to skate-like petalodont (petal-toothed) sharks and early ratfish relatives were common among these mounds of life. The largest shark that hunted the ancient seas was Saivodus striatus. Some fossils of Saivodus found at Mammoth Cave National Park suggest this shark reached up to 4–5 meters (13–16 feet) long on average (roughly the same size as the largest great white sharks alive today) and some reaching closer to possibly 8–9 meters (28–30 feet) in length (about the size of a living basking shark). The Mammoth Cave Saivodus, along with two new shark species and crinoids, is featured in our official 2023 National Fossil Day poster. Mississippian fossils have been found in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Buffalo National River, Death Valley National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Natchez Trace Parkway, New River Gorge National River, Russell Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yukon-Charley Rivers Preserve and other parks.


The Pennsylvanian Period (323–298 million years ago) saw the final formation of the supercontinent Pangea, which had global environmental impacts. During the Pennsylvanian, the global climate began to cool and dry, eventually greatly reducing the global rainforests seen in the Mississippian Period. At this time conifers became more dominant in drier habitats. Also, on land large arthropods such as the giant (2.6 meter/8.5 foot long) milliped Arthropleura, giant dragonfly-like insects like Meganeura, and early cockroaches were common. Early amphibians greatly diversified and ranged from small newt-sized species to some reaching over 2 meters (6.6 feet) in length. Many were aquatic (Proterogyrinus) to semi-aquatic (Amphibamus), and a few were fully terrestrial (Anthracosaurus). Reptiles at this time were still small at this time but the two major branches, the diapsids (which would give rise to lizards, snakes, crocodiles, dinosaurs, and birds) and the synapsids (mammals and their ancestors) made their appearance during the Pennsylvanian. One of the earliest diapsids was Petrolacosaurus, a small lizard-like animal from North America. The earliest synapsid, Archaeothyris, was also a lizard-like animal but had some of the features of its mammal descendants, such as an enlarged canine-like tooth. In the seas, fishes continue to thrive but the formation of Pangea and climate change had an impact on the number of species. Sharks were still the dominant fish group but bony fish were diversifying into new niches. Reef-forming corals, sponges, echinoderms, brachiopods, and mollusks were still prominent, but arthropods such trilobites and eurypterids were declining in diversity. Pennsylvanian fossils have been found at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Canyonlands National Park, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Death Valley National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Grand Canyon National Park, New River Gorge National River, Obed Wild and Scenic River, Parashant National Monument, Yellowstone National Monument, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and other parks.


The Permian Period (299–252 million years ago) was the last of the Paleozoic geologic periods and saw one of the greatest extinction events of all time. By the end of the Permian, some 95% of all life went extinct. The formation of Pangea saw large areas of the supercontinent become severely dry with interior deserts. The early Permian saw a greater radiation of diapsid and synapsid reptiles, with the ancestors of modern reptiles and mammals appearing in the fossil record. Synapsids such as the sail-backed Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus were common across North America. These reptiles lived in both dry conifer forests and swampy seed fern marshes. Tracks of these early reptiles are documented at several of our national parks. Some of the major insect groups also appeared during the Permian. These include the Hemiptera (true bugs) and early beetles. Giant dragonfly-like insects were still prevalent during the Permian, fossils of which have been found in rocks at Grand Canyon National Park. Aquatic trilobites and eurypterids were still around but not as abundant as other marine invertebrates. Brachiopods and mollusks were very diverse at this time, still forming reefs along with corals and crinoids in the warm shallow seas that once covered places like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming. Among the brachiopods, the productids attained large sizes and their complex array of spines stand out in rock exposures or weathered free. Sharks of the Permian showed one last great diversification, with some ratfish relatives evolving not only bizarre teeth but also large body sizes. Helicoprion, for example, had a single ever-growing buzz-blade like tooth in the lower jaw that it used to feed on fish and cephalopods. Based on some of these tooth whorls, Helicoprion could have reached up to 5–8 meters (16–26 feet) in length. Another, Megactenopetalus, had only two large teeth, a sharp upper jagged cusped tooth and a triangular smooth blade-like tooth, that formed a beak-like arrangement in its mouth. The teeth of Megactenopetalus can rival those seen in the Cenozoic giant 15 meter (50 feet) long shark Otodus megalodon, with some teeth about 20 centimeter (7 inch) wide, but we think it had a much smaller 1.6 meter (5.2 foot) long body. Permian fossils have been found in Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Canyonlands National Park. Death Valley National Park, Denali National Park & Preserve, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Canyon National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, other national parks.

We hope the above information may inspire your artistic submissions for our 2023 National Fossil Day Art Contest. We encourage you to explore the links to the parks and also look into your closest National Park System unit to see if it has its own unique Paleozoic fossil record!

Art Contest Guidelines

Click here to open the art contest entry form.

Who can enter?

The contest is open to any interested person, of all ages. Entries will be judged based on originality, creativity, and how well the submission addresses this year’s contest theme. You must be a resident of the United States to enter.

What should my artwork include?

Your artwork should focus on the art contest theme “The Rise of Ancient Life in our National Parks and Monuments.” It can include one or more fossil representative, prehistoric organism, and/or prehistoric scene from one or more National Park Service sites but the artwork must include the name of the parks or monuments they come from. We would also like to know why you chose that particular fossil and park as your subject in the statement you provide in the registration form.

The artwork can be in the form of a photograph (black & white or color), a painting, a drawing, or a sketch. All artwork must be 2D and flat.

Questions to help you get started...

Where is the closest National Park or Monument near me? Does it have fossils? What is my favorite Paleozoic fossil or prehistoric creature? Can we find it at a National Park Service site? Do I want to focus on one type of fossil or show many? Do I have a favorite geologic age?

How large should the artwork be?

All artwork should be able to fit inside a 13"x 17" envelope or smaller. Digital entries must be at least between 300 to 600 DPI and in jpeg format.

What do I need to submit?

A valid submission will contain the following information:

  1. An original copy of the artwork. Each piece must be original, authentic, unpublished, the sole property of the entrant, and not previously submitted in any other contest. Make sure to include a sentence or two on your submission form describing your artwork. For digital entries, please scan or provide a high-quality digital photo of your piece showing the art entry (no back ground and/or showing individuals holding up the art entry). Digital photos of art entries must be clear, with consistent lighting, and no shadows.

  2. Your personal information, printed on either the back of your artwork or on a separate sheet attached to your physical artwork or provided with the e-mail for your digital entry:

  • First and last name:

  • Mailing address:

  • Phone number:

  • E-mail address:

  1. A completed and signed entry form. Print out the entry form here and send it to us when you send your artwork. Entries cannot be accepted without a signed entry form.

How should I submit my artwork and entry form?

Artwork must be either sent by mail, along with your contact information to the address below; or sent digitally with a pdf of the signed completed entry form to the e-mail address below.

Important: You must have a signed and completed entry form (if under 18, a parent or guardian must sign) to enter.

Physical entry forms may be submitted by mail along with your artwork. All mailed entry forms must be sent to:

National Fossil Day Art Contest
c/o Vincent L. Santucci
370 Montclair Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325

Digital entries with completed entry forms are emailed to:

When is the deadline?

All submissions must be received by mail or email no later than 5 p.m. EST, Friday, September 29th, 2023.

How will the artwork be judged?

The artwork will be judged by a panel on originality, creativity, quality and, most importantly, relevance to the topic. Four top entries in each age group will be selected including 1st Place, 2nd Place, 3rd Place and Honorable Mention. The age groups are:

  • 8 years old and under

  • 9 to 13 years of age

  • 14 to 18 years of age

  • 18 and older

The winner's artwork will appear on the National Fossil Day Art Contest Winners Gallery starting on October 11th, 2023. Check the National Fossil Day website to see if your artwork has been selected!


By submitting an entry, an entrant agrees to allow the National Park Service to use his or her name to post on the NPS's National Fossil Day Web site, without compensation unless prohibited. All entries and all rights of ownership in and to the entries, including all rights to use, reproduce, publish, modify, edit, and distribute the same will become the exclusive property of NPS and will not be returned. NPS reserves the right to edit, modify, copyright, publish, use, and reproduce any and all entries without further compensation. The National Park Service, its agents and contractors, are not responsible for lost, late, misdirected, incomplete, or postage-due entries. Contest void if prohibited or restricted by law.

Last updated: April 3, 2023