Fossil and fossilization

Fossil And Fossilization 2867
Photo by: Bastos

A fossil is the remains or traces of a once-living plant or animal that was preserved in rock or other material before the beginning of recorded history. The term also is used to describe the fossil fuels (oil, coal, petroleum, and natural gas) that have been formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals. It is unusual for complete organisms to be preserved. Fossils usually represent the hard parts, such as bones or shells of animals and leaves, seeds, or woody parts of plants. Fossils occur on every continent and on the ocean floor. Through paleontology (the scientific study of fossils), it is possible to reconstruct ancient communities of living organisms and to trace the evolution of species.

Fossils of single-celled organisms have been recovered from rocks as old as 3.5 billion years. Animal fossils first appear in rocks dating back about 1 billion years. The occurrence of fossils in unusual places, such as dinosaur fossils in Antarctica and fish fossils on the Siberian steppes, is due to the shifting of the plates that make up Earth's crust and environmental changes (such as ice ages) over time. The best explanation for dinosaurs on Antarctica is not that they evolved there, but that Antarctica was once part of a much larger landmass with which it shared many lifeforms.

Formation of fossils

Most fossils are found in sedimentary rocks, those rocks produced by the accumulation of sediment such as sand or mud. Wind and other weathering conditions wash away sediment on land, depositing it in bodies of water. For this reason, fossils of sea creatures are more common than those of land creatures. Land animals and plants that have been preserved are found mostly in sediments in calm lakes, rivers, and estuaries.

The likelihood that any living organism will become a fossil is quite low. The path from the organic, living world to the world of rock and mineral is long and indirect. In the best conditions, fossilization will occur if an animal or plant dies and is quickly covered over with moist sediment. This prevents the animal or plant from being eaten by other organisms or from undergoing natural decay through exposure to oxygen and bacteria. The soft parts of an animal or plant decay more quickly than its hard parts. Teeth and bones are therefore more likely to be preserved than skin, tissues, and organs. Because of this fact, most fossils come from the time period dating to almost 600 million years ago, when organisms began to develop skeletons and hard parts.

Words to Know

Amber: Transparent golden-brown resin fossil formed from hardened pine tree sap.

Cast: Fossil formed when a mold is later filled in by mud or mineral matter.

Geologic time periods: Episodes in Earth's history marked by different climate factors, sea levels, and lifeforms.

Index fossil: A distinctive fossil, common to a particular geological period, that is used to date rocks of that period.

Mold: Fossil formed when acidic water dissolves a shell or bone around which sand or mud has already hardened.

Paleontology: The scientific study of fossils.

Petrifaction: Process of turning organic material into rock by the replacement of that material with minerals.

Sediment: Sand, silt, clay, rock, gravel, mud, or other matter that has been transported by flowing water.

Successful fossilization or preservation of an organism can occur in several ways: (1) preservation without change; (2) complete replacement by a mineral; (3) filling in of a hollow space by a mineral; (4) formation of a thin film of carbon; and (5) formation of an imprint or the filling in of an imprint.

Bones, shells, and teeth are examples of fossils preserved without change. The entire skeletal remains of animals that fell into ancient asphalt pits and quicksand have been preserved undamaged. Sometimes an entire organism may be preserved whole. An example of an almost perfectly preserved organism is an ancient insect trapped in pine tree sap. Over time, the pine sap hardened into a transparent golden-brown resin called amber, which contains the body of the insect. The remains of animals trapped in ice—such as woolly mammoths—have been found with skin and hair intact.

The process by which an organism is completely replaced by minerals is called petrifaction. The best-known example of this process is petrified wood, as seen in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Trees in this area were buried in mud and sand that contained the mineral silica. Ground water carried this dissolved mineral into the trees, where it replaced the wood cells so completely the trees became hardened opal.

Sometimes only small open spaces or holes in a shell or bone are filled in by dissolved minerals. The added mineral matter makes the shell or bone more compact and stonelike, preventing it from decaying.

A mosquito in amber, 35 million years old. (Reproduced by permission of JLM Visuals.)
A mosquito in amber, 35 million years old. (Reproduced by permission of
JLM Visuals

Another type of fossil is the darkened carbon imprint of a buried plant or, more rare, animal. When an organism dies and is buried, pressure underneath Earth's surface compresses the organism between rock faces. The organism decomposes, leaving a thin film of carbon on the rock face in the form of the organism. (All organic matter is made of carbon.) Leaves, insects, and fish are often found preserved this way.

An imprint in rock or the filling in of that imprint are other very common fossils. When an organism trapped in hardening sedimentary rock was dissolved by acidic water percolating through the rock, only the shape or form of the organism remained as an imprint. The cavity remaining in the rock is called a mold. If the mold were later filled in by mud or mineral matter, the resulting fossil is called a cast.

The fossil clock

The principal use of fossils by geologists has been to date rock layers (called strata) that have been deposited on the surface of Earth over millions of years. Different episodes in Earth's history (known as geologic time periods) are marked by different climate factors, sea levels, and lifeforms. Distinctive fossilized lifeforms that are typically associated with a specific geologic time period are known as index fossils. These are fossils

The bottom view of a fossil. (Reproduced by permission of JLM Visuals.)
The bottom view of a fossil. (Reproduced by permission of
JLM Visuals

of organisms that lived for a short period of time in many areas. Since fossils and the rock they are found in are considered to be the same age, specific index fossils found in different rock layers in different areas indicate that the rock layers are the same age.

[ See also Dating techniques ; Geologic time ; Paleoecology ; Paleontology ; Rocks ]

User Contributions:

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May 3, 2006 @ 7:07 am
This is a great website! thank you it is very resorceful and helped me with my fossil project alot and thanks again!

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Nov 23, 2007 @ 4:16 pm
Thanks for the information!It really helped me on my 2o page test!
Thanks again!

Jason Cardinali
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Jan 23, 2008 @ 4:16 pm
Thanks! This realy helped for my Earth Science homework!
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Oct 29, 2009 @ 3:15 pm
Cool article. Have any scientist found things like tropical plants in cold places?
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Dec 9, 2009 @ 3:03 am
wow , very usefull for our fossil report, thanks,

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Jan 10, 2010 @ 1:13 pm
thnks really helpful information for my science test. :)
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Jan 10, 2010 @ 3:15 pm
thanks for this information... it help me keep up in my science class
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Feb 6, 2010 @ 10:10 am
Great information and declarification on fossils! Very helpful!
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May 4, 2010 @ 9:21 pm
What is needed for an organism to be fossilized? I'm not so sure if you have already answered this, and if you have, could please make it a little clearer. 'Cause you state all of the different ways for an organism to be fossilized, but not what is needed for the evidence to be fossilized. But other than that, thank you for your information, let's hope that it will help me get an A on my test tomorrow!
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May 12, 2010 @ 6:18 pm
WOW, thank you so much, after reading this, i have managed to squeeze in some extra information for my science test in the next period.
this was really helpful!!
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May 24, 2010 @ 2:14 pm
thanks, this has really helped with my fossil project. :)
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Sep 30, 2010 @ 4:16 pm
i loved the artricle about fossils. it really hel;ped me out on my science homework. i was clueless without tis thank you so much millions of kids need info on this
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Dec 7, 2010 @ 6:06 am
thankss!! it helped a lot..i'm having my 2nd quarter exam in a week . . i'm in 8th grade and this really helped me for my earth science homework.. :)
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Dec 19, 2010 @ 12:00 am
This is a very informative and precise website.It has helped me a lot for
my assignment.Thankyou.
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Jan 5, 2011 @ 9:21 pm
IM DOING A CROSSWORD PUZZLE IN SCIENCE AND IT SAYS TYPE OF FOSSIL WHERE A MOLD OR IMPRINT IS FILLED WITH minerals making a copy of the organism if any one see where that is please comment thanx alot :]
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Oct 15, 2011 @ 1:01 am
this so cool and nice it helps me to understand what is a fossil
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Oct 31, 2011 @ 8:20 pm
Im filling in imformation on fossils and fossilization in my science class for an assignment and this article was very helpful. Thanks alot for taking the time to write it . (:
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Nov 8, 2011 @ 5:05 am
I have whole organism preservation, petrification of small marine animals. The preservation is without change. Rare, meaning it does exist. If it looks like an alligator it is an alligator. website, very simply said. Thank you
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Jan 27, 2012 @ 3:15 pm
thanks for the information it really hepled me on my assignments
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Apr 23, 2012 @ 9:09 am
Does a preserved human body class as a fossil? I am doing a project at school and need to know the answer to be able to do said project. MH
danica rustia
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Jun 23, 2014 @ 3:15 pm
thank u 4 the info. it can help me 2 make my assignment about fossils...
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Oct 24, 2014 @ 11:11 am
very interesting and knowlegable way of presentention , use of easy words
tnaks for helping me
naqeeb Alam Nayab
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Nov 30, 2014 @ 12:12 pm
how can we find the fossils of micro organisms like bacterias and fungi
tyler hough
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Dec 8, 2014 @ 8:08 am
this is very well writen and shows a lot about humanity
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Mar 24, 2015 @ 1:01 am
what are difference between plant fossil and animal fossil
Robert L.Grisham
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Sep 1, 2015 @ 3:15 pm
Question? I am trying to find out just how long it would take mud to turn to stone, I found a hand print in a rock in Kansas
and just wondered how long it had been their.
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Sep 10, 2015 @ 8:08 am
Thank you this website got me an A plus on my science project so thank you so much
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Jan 13, 2016 @ 5:17 pm
This article is amazing it helped me in so many ways in science class
Winter Hummell
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Mar 31, 2016 @ 10:10 am
Thank you so much. Helped me with my Earth Science homework. Will recommend this to other students in my class.

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