About 185 million years ago, a plesiosaur met its fate along what is now the Jurassic Coast of England. Over time, the Earth swallowed the creature’s remains and kept them hidden for millennia — until Fossil Daddy, a “queer paleontological father figure on the internet,” found one of its “freaking awesome” bones in 2019.
When I admit I’m not familiar with the extinct species, Daddy — who prefers to use his pseudonym for privacy concerns related to his family — tells me they’re long-necked marine reptiles commonly mistaken for aquatic dinosaurs. The Loch Ness monster is typically depicted as a plesiosaur, he adds.
Educational moments play out like this all the time on Fossil Daddy’s social media posts, but with one major difference: They’re usually accompanied by his sculpted arms and hairy, tattooed chest. (During our video call, he’s covered up with a cozy-looking fleece sweater.) He’s amassed more than 170,000 followers across four platforms, so his teaching style seems to be working. “I get this comment pretty frequently, not verbatim,” Daddy says. “‘The thirst traps brought me in, but the education kept me here.’”
His fossil digs — both literal excavations but also clever clapbacks to those who don’t believe in evolution — make up a big part of that education. As a paleontologist, Daddy often spends days at a time uncovering ancient fossils that tell the story of how non-human life evolved on Earth. After the trips, and sometimes during, he posts about his findings. “When you split a rock down the middle and you find a fossil, you are the first pair of eyes to ever see this animal — or plant, or whatever it may be — in hundreds of millions of years,” Daddy says. “And that never ceases to blow my mind.”
Fossil Daddy’s unique blend of science and queerness makes him a frequent target of creationist trolls. But he doesn’t sit and take it; he trolls them right back. That’s when his Boston accent really comes out. “If you really, truly believe this, then you’re not that bright,” Daddy says in one video reply to a creationist. This is after he has debunked their claims, point by point, with evidence. “They’re definitely very threatened by my presence, so maybe I should turn up the TikToks a little bit more,” he tells me. But it took him time to reach that level of confidence.
Daddy traces his love of fossils back to the 1998 video games “Pokémon Red” and “Pokémon Blue.” In the games, you can catch the snail-like creature Omanyte by reviving its fossil. Omanyte is based on real-life ammonites, an extinct mollusk that’s one of the most common fossils in the world. “When I made that connection, it snowballed into a childish obsession of paleontology that just never went away,” Daddy tells me of his first time playing the games at 12 years old. Even now, he sells Pokémon-inspired “Daddy’s Balls” that contain artifacts from his fossil hunts, and he frequently plays the games on Twitch and YouTube streams. “It really inspired me to look [at] the real world around me,” he says.
So Daddy set out to become a paleontologist, eventually earning three environmental science degrees (a bachelor’s and two master’s) by 2017. But his lengthy journey through the world of academia left him feeling dejected and craving change. “It’s dominated by old white men, and they don’t do a whole lot of outreach to other groups who are marginalized,” Daddy says. A 2018 Paleontological Association survey of the field found that more than 85% of respondents were white. “The sciences will die if new demographics don’t come in,” he says.
The recreational side of geology wasn’t much better. Daddy recalls an instance when he got kicked out of a rockhounding group without explanation, only to later find out from an ex-member it was because he “was a little too gay on Facebook.” The incident just emboldened him to be even more unapologetically queer. “We exist. We’re going to take over the space someday,” Daddy says. “We’re going to turn paleontology into gay-leontology.”
In hopes of appealing to a new, diverse audience, he worked through his fear of being on camera and rebranded his faceless Instagram account as Fossil Daddy in 2020. “I wanted it to be something paleontological,” he tells me. “But I also wanted it to be kind of cheeky. ... I just figured if I put the two together, that would create the perfect niche audience that I was looking to cater to.”
Though he credits his growing popularity to more than just thirstiness, he acknowledges that’s a big part of it. “I think people forget that they love to learn,” he tells me. “They go onto these platforms for an entirely different motive, but then they end up staying because they’re getting a surprise at the end of it. Nobody goes to Instagram expecting to learn about fossils.”
But because social media algorithms prioritize outrage and sensationalism, it was inevitable for Daddy to attract the attention of people who have no real intention of learning about science. To fundamentalist Christians, Daddy embodies everything wrong with the world; not only do they reject the existence of fossils, but they also reject the existence of anyone who isn’t straight and white. “I hit all three of those triggers for these people, so they can’t help but lay on the hate for me,” Daddy says. “But here they are seeing me and hearing me. So maybe I’m getting through to them just a little bit, and that scares them.”
By being visibly queer, refusing to stay quiet, and insisting on taking up space, Daddy has been able to build the inclusive geology community he’d always dreamed of. His Discord server boasts more than 500 members, many of whom were eager to chat with me about Daddy’s impact on their lives. “Coming out last year I felt so isolated, but now I have a life line of people [who] are willing to help me out with any questions I may have,” a user, who goes by the screen name JcHaynes, tells me. “Fossil Daddy has given everyone the opportunity to not only learn a little about paleontology, but also to grow themselves,” another member adds.
At a time when conservatives are using social media to attack science and queer people from all sides — from “Libs of TikTok” to Elon Musk buying Twitter — Fossil Daddy’s work has never been more important. As platforms grow increasingly unsafe for marginalized people, Daddy will continue to drown out the bad with cheeky and informative videos, as well as shirtless pics. “We just have to hold the owners of these social media companies accountable,” he says. “It could really be used as a tool for good.”