Fossil

Fossil

Overview

Fossils are the preserved remains or traces
Trace fossil
Trace fossils, also called ichnofossils , are geological records of biological activity. Trace fossils may be impressions made on the substrate by an organism: for example, burrows, borings , urolites , footprints and feeding marks, and root cavities...

 of animals (also known as zoolites), plants, and other organisms from the remote past. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossiliferous (fossil-containing) rock
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

 formations and sedimentary
Sedimentary rock
Sedimentary rock are types of rock that are formed by the deposition of material at the Earth's surface and within bodies of water. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause mineral and/or organic particles to settle and accumulate or minerals to precipitate from a solution....

 layers (strata
Stratum
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

) is known as the fossil record.

The study of fossils across geological time
Geologic time scale
The geologic time scale provides a system of chronologic measurement relating stratigraphy to time that is used by geologists, paleontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth...

, how they were formed, and the evolution
Evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

ary relationships between taxa
Taxon
|thumb|270px|[[African elephants]] form a widely-accepted taxon, the [[genus]] LoxodontaA taxon is a group of organisms, which a taxonomist adjudges to be a unit. Usually a taxon is given a name and a rank, although neither is a requirement...

 (phylogeny
Phylogenetics
In biology, phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups of organisms , which is discovered through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices...

) are some of the most important functions of the science of paleontology
Paleontology
Paleontology "old, ancient", ὄν, ὀντ- "being, creature", and λόγος "speech, thought") is the study of prehistoric life. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments...

.
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Fossils are the preserved remains or traces
Trace fossil
Trace fossils, also called ichnofossils , are geological records of biological activity. Trace fossils may be impressions made on the substrate by an organism: for example, burrows, borings , urolites , footprints and feeding marks, and root cavities...

 of animals (also known as zoolites), plants, and other organisms from the remote past. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossiliferous (fossil-containing) rock
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

 formations and sedimentary
Sedimentary rock
Sedimentary rock are types of rock that are formed by the deposition of material at the Earth's surface and within bodies of water. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause mineral and/or organic particles to settle and accumulate or minerals to precipitate from a solution....

 layers (strata
Stratum
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

) is known as the fossil record.

The study of fossils across geological time
Geologic time scale
The geologic time scale provides a system of chronologic measurement relating stratigraphy to time that is used by geologists, paleontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth...

, how they were formed, and the evolution
Evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

ary relationships between taxa
Taxon
|thumb|270px|[[African elephants]] form a widely-accepted taxon, the [[genus]] LoxodontaA taxon is a group of organisms, which a taxonomist adjudges to be a unit. Usually a taxon is given a name and a rank, although neither is a requirement...

 (phylogeny
Phylogenetics
In biology, phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups of organisms , which is discovered through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices...

) are some of the most important functions of the science of paleontology
Paleontology
Paleontology "old, ancient", ὄν, ὀντ- "being, creature", and λόγος "speech, thought") is the study of prehistoric life. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments...

. Such a preserved specimen is called a "fossil" if it is older than some minimum age, most often the arbitrary date of 10,000 years ago. Hence, fossils range in age from the youngest at the start of the Holocene
Holocene
The Holocene is a geological epoch which began at the end of the Pleistocene and continues to the present. The Holocene is part of the Quaternary period. Its name comes from the Greek words and , meaning "entirely recent"...

 Epoch to the oldest from the Archaean Eon, up to 3.4 billion
1000000000 (number)
1,000,000,000 is the natural number following 999,999,999 and preceding 1,000,000,001.In scientific notation, it is written as 109....

 years old. The observations that certain fossils were associated with certain rock strata
Stratum
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

 led early geologists to recognize a geological timescale in the 19th century. The development of radiometric dating
Radiometric dating
Radiometric dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks, usually based on a comparison between the observed abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope and its decay products, using known decay rates...

 techniques in the early 20th century allowed geologists to determine the numerical or "absolute" age of the various strata and thereby the included fossils.

Like extant organisms, fossils vary in size from microscopic
Microscope
A microscope is an instrument used to see objects that are too small for the naked eye. The science of investigating small objects using such an instrument is called microscopy...

, such as single bacterial cells
only one micrometer
Micrometre
A micrometer , is by definition 1×10-6 of a meter .In plain English, it means one-millionth of a meter . Its unit symbol in the International System of Units is μm...

 in diameter, to gigantic, such as dinosaur
Dinosaur
Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade and superorder Dinosauria. They were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for over 160 million years, from the late Triassic period until the end of the Cretaceous , when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of...

s and trees many meters long and weighing many tons. A fossil normally preserves only a portion of the deceased organism, usually that portion that was partially mineralized
Mineralization (biology)
In biology, mineralization refers to the process where an organic substance is converted to an inorganic substance.This may also be a normal biological process which takes place during the life of an organism such as the formation of bone tissue or egg shells, largely with calcium.This term may...

 during life, such as the bone
Bone
Bones are rigid organs that constitute part of the endoskeleton of vertebrates. They support, and protect the various organs of the body, produce red and white blood cells and store minerals. Bone tissue is a type of dense connective tissue...

s and teeth of vertebrate
Vertebrate
Vertebrates are animals that are members of the subphylum Vertebrata . Vertebrates are the largest group of chordates, with currently about 58,000 species described. Vertebrates include the jawless fishes, bony fishes, sharks and rays, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds...

s, or the chitin
Chitin
Chitin n is a long-chain polymer of a N-acetylglucosamine, a derivative of glucose, and is found in many places throughout the natural world...

ous or calcareous
Calcareous
Calcareous is an adjective meaning mostly or partly composed of calcium carbonate, in other words, containing lime or being chalky. The term is used in a wide variety of scientific disciplines.-In zoology:...

 exoskeleton
Exoskeleton
An exoskeleton is the external skeleton that supports and protects an animal's body, in contrast to the internal skeleton of, for example, a human. In popular usage, some of the larger kinds of exoskeletons are known as "shells". Examples of exoskeleton animals include insects such as grasshoppers...

s of invertebrate
Invertebrate
An invertebrate is an animal without a backbone. The group includes 97% of all animal species – all animals except those in the chordate subphylum Vertebrata .Invertebrates form a paraphyletic group...

s. Preservation of soft tissues is rare in the fossil record. Fossils may also consist of the marks left behind by the organism while it was alive, such as the footprint or feces
Feces
Feces, faeces, or fæces is a waste product from an animal's digestive tract expelled through the anus or cloaca during defecation.-Etymology:...

 (coprolite
Coprolite
A coprolite is fossilized animal dung. Coprolites are classified as trace fossils as opposed to body fossils, as they give evidence for the animal's behaviour rather than morphology. The name is derived from the Greek words κοπρος / kopros meaning 'dung' and λιθος / lithos meaning 'stone'. They...

s) of a reptile
Reptile
Reptiles are members of a class of air-breathing, ectothermic vertebrates which are characterized by laying shelled eggs , and having skin covered in scales and/or scutes. They are tetrapods, either having four limbs or being descended from four-limbed ancestors...

. These types of fossil are called trace fossil
Trace fossil
Trace fossils, also called ichnofossils , are geological records of biological activity. Trace fossils may be impressions made on the substrate by an organism: for example, burrows, borings , urolites , footprints and feeding marks, and root cavities...

s (or ichnofossils), as opposed to body fossils. Finally, past life
Evolutionary history of life
The evolutionary history of life on Earth traces the processes by which living and fossil organisms have evolved since life on Earth first originated until the present day. Earth formed about 4.5 Ga and life appeared on its surface within one billion years...

 leaves some markers that cannot be seen but can be detected in the form of biochemical
Biochemistry
Biochemistry, sometimes called biological chemistry, is the study of chemical processes in living organisms, including, but not limited to, living matter. Biochemistry governs all living organisms and living processes...

 signals; these are known as chemofossils or biomarkers.

Places of exceptional fossilization


Fossil sites with exceptional preservation—sometimes including preserved soft tissues—are known as Lagerstätte
Lagerstätte
A Lagerstätte is a sedimentary deposit that exhibits extraordinary fossil richness or completeness.Palaeontologists distinguish two kinds....

n. These formations may have resulted from carcass burial in an anoxic
Hypoxia (environmental)
Hypoxia, or oxygen depletion, is a phenomenon that occurs in aquatic environments as dissolved oxygen becomes reduced in concentration to a point where it becomes detrimental to aquatic organisms living in the system...

 environment with minimal bacteria, thus delaying decomposition. Lagerstätten span geological
Geology
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

 time from the Cambrian
Cambrian
The Cambrian is the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, lasting from Mya ; it is succeeded by the Ordovician. Its subdivisions, and indeed its base, are somewhat in flux. The period was established by Adam Sedgwick, who named it after Cambria, the Latin name for Wales, where Britain's...

 period to the present
Holocene
The Holocene is a geological epoch which began at the end of the Pleistocene and continues to the present. The Holocene is part of the Quaternary period. Its name comes from the Greek words and , meaning "entirely recent"...

. Worldwide, some of the best examples of near-perfect fossilization are the Cambrian
Cambrian
The Cambrian is the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, lasting from Mya ; it is succeeded by the Ordovician. Its subdivisions, and indeed its base, are somewhat in flux. The period was established by Adam Sedgwick, who named it after Cambria, the Latin name for Wales, where Britain's...

 Maotianshan shales
Maotianshan shales
The Maotianshan Shales are a series of lower Cambrian deposits in the Chiungchussu formation, famous for their Konservat Lagerstätten, or high number of fossils preserved in place...

 and Burgess Shale
Burgess Shale
The Burgess Shale Formation, located in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, is one of the world's most celebrated fossil fields, and the best of its kind. It is famous for the exceptional preservation of the soft parts of its fossils...

, the Devonian
Devonian
The Devonian is a geologic period and system of the Paleozoic Era spanning from the end of the Silurian Period, about 416.0 ± 2.8 Mya , to the beginning of the Carboniferous Period, about 359.2 ± 2.5 Mya...

 Hunsrück Slates
Hunsrück Slates
The Hunsrück Slate is a Lower Devonian lithostratigraphic unit, a type of rock strata, in the German regions of the Hunsrück and Taunus. It is a lagerstätte famous for exceptional preservation of a highly diverse fossil fauna assemblage.-Geology:...

, the Jurassic
Jurassic
The Jurassic is a geologic period and system that extends from about Mya to  Mya, that is, from the end of the Triassic to the beginning of the Cretaceous. The Jurassic constitutes the middle period of the Mesozoic era, also known as the age of reptiles. The start of the period is marked by...

 Solnhofen limestone
Solnhofen limestone
The Solnhofen Plattenkalk is a Jurassic Konservat-Lagerstätte that preserves a rare assemblage of fossilized organisms, including highly detailed imprints of soft bodied organisms such as sea jellies...

, and the Carboniferous
Carboniferous
The Carboniferous is a geologic period and system that extends from the end of the Devonian Period, about 359.2 ± 2.5 Mya , to the beginning of the Permian Period, about 299.0 ± 0.8 Mya . The name is derived from the Latin word for coal, carbo. Carboniferous means "coal-bearing"...

 Mazon Creek localities.

Earliest fossiliferous sites



Earth’s oldest fossils are the stromatolite
Stromatolite
Stromatolites or stromatoliths are layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria ....

s consisting of rock built from layer upon layer of sediment
Sediment
Sediment is naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of fluids such as wind, water, or ice, and/or by the force of gravity acting on the particle itself....

 and other precipitants. Based on studies of now-rare (but living) stromatolites (specifically, certain blue-green bacteria), the growth of fossil stromatolitic structures was biogenetically mediated by mats of microorganism
Microorganism
A microorganism or microbe is a microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell , cell clusters, or no cell at all...

s through their entrapment of sediments. However, abiotic mechanisms for stromatolitic growth are also known, leading to a decades-long and sometimes-contentious scientific debate regarding biogenesis of certain formations, especially those from the lower to middle Archean
Archean
The Archean , also spelled Archeozoic or Archæozoic) is a geologic eon before the Paleoproterozoic Era of the Proterozoic Eon, before 2.5 Ga ago. Instead of being based on stratigraphy, this date is defined chronometrically...

 eon.

It is most widely accepted that stromatolites from the late Archean and through the middle Proterozoic
Proterozoic
The Proterozoic is a geological eon representing a period before the first abundant complex life on Earth. The name Proterozoic comes from the Greek "earlier life"...

 eon were mostly formed by massive colonies
Colony (biology)
In biology, a colony reference to several individual organisms of the same species living closely together, usually for mutual benefit, such as stronger defense or the ability to attack bigger prey. Some insects live only in colonies...

 of cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green "algae"), and that the oxygen
Oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 byproduct of their photosynthetic
Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is a chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis occurs in plants, algae, and many species of bacteria, but not in archaea. Photosynthetic organisms are called photoautotrophs, since they can...

 metabolism
Metabolism
Metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that happen in the cells of living organisms to sustain life. These processes allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments. Metabolism is usually divided into two categories...

 first resulted in earth’s massive banded iron formation
Banded iron formation
Banded iron formations are distinctive units of sedimentary rock that are almost always of Precambrian age. A typical BIF consists of repeated, thin layers of iron oxides, either magnetite or hematite , alternating with bands of iron-poor shale and chert...

s and subsequently oxygenated earth’s atmosphere.

Even though it is extremely rare, microstructures resembling cells
Cell (biology)
The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing, and is often called the building block of life. The Alberts text discusses how the "cellular building blocks" move to shape developing embryos....

 are sometimes found within stromatolites; but these are also the source of scientific contention. The Gunflint Chert
Gunflint Chert
The Gunflint chert is a sequence of banded iron formation rocks that are exposed in the Gunflint Range of northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario along the north shore of Lake Superior. The black layers in the sequence contain microfossils that are 1.9 to 2.3 billion years in age. Stromatolite...

 contains abundant microfossils widely accepted as a diverse consortium of 2.0 Ga Microorganism
Microorganism
A microorganism or microbe is a microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell , cell clusters, or no cell at all...

s.

In contrast, putative fossil cyanobacteria cells from the 3.4 Ga Warrawoona Group
Warrawoona Group
The Warrawoona Group is a geological unit in Western Australia containing putative fossils of cyanobacteria cells. Dated 3.465 Ga, these microstructures, found in archean chert, are considered to be the oldest known geological record of life on earth....

 in Western Australia are in dispute since abiotic processes cannot be ruled out. Confirmation of the Warrawoona microstructures as cyanobacteria would profoundly impact our understanding of when and how early life diversified, pushing important evolution
Evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

ary milestones further back in time. The continued study of these oldest fossils is paramount to calibrate complementary molecular phylogenetics models.

Developments in interpretation of the fossil record




Ever since recorded history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

 began, and probably before, people have noticed and gathered fossils, including pieces of rock
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

 and mineral
Mineral
A mineral is a naturally occurring solid chemical substance formed through biogeochemical processes, having characteristic chemical composition, highly ordered atomic structure, and specific physical properties. By comparison, a rock is an aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids and does not...

s that have replaced the remains of biologic organisms, or preserved their external form. Fossils themselves, and the totality of their occurrence within the sequence of Earth's rock strata
Stratum
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

, is referred to as the fossil record.

The fossil record was one of the early sources of data relevant to the study of evolution
Evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 and continues to be relevant to the history of life on Earth
Timeline of evolution
This timeline of evolution of life outlines the major events in the development of life on planet Earth since it first originated until the present day. In biology, evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations...

. Paleontologists examine the fossil record in order to understand the process of evolution and the way particular species
Species
In biology, a species is one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are...

 have evolved.

Explanations




Various explanations have been put forth throughout history to explain what fossils are and how they came to be where they were found. Many of these explanations relied on folktales or mythologies. In China the fossil bones of ancient mammals including Homo erectus
Homo erectus
Homo erectus is an extinct species of hominid that lived from the end of the Pliocene epoch to the later Pleistocene, about . The species originated in Africa and spread as far as India, China and Java. There is still disagreement on the subject of the classification, ancestry, and progeny of H...

were often mistaken for “dragon
Dragon
A dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that feature in the myths of many cultures. There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern...

 bones” and used as medicine and aphrodisiacs. In the West the presence of fossilized sea creatures high up on mountainsides was seen as proof of the biblical deluge
Noah's Ark
Noah's Ark is a vessel appearing in the Book of Genesis and the Quran . These narratives describe the construction of the ark by Noah at God's command to save himself, his family, and the world's animals from the worldwide deluge of the Great Flood.In the narrative of the ark, God sees the...

.

Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 scholar Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 realized that fossil seashells from rocks were similar to those found on the beach, indicating the fossils were once living animals. Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 concurred with Aristotle's view that fossils were the remains of ancient life. In 1027, the Persian geologist, Avicenna explained how the stoniness
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

 of fossils was caused in The Book of Healing
The Book of Healing
The Book of Healing is a scientific and philosophical encyclopedia written by Abū Alī ibn Sīnā from Asfahana, near Bukhara in Greater Persia. Despite its English title, it is not in fact concerned with medicine...

. However, he rejected the explanation of fossils as organic remains. Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 previously explained it in terms of vapor
Vapor
A vapor or vapour is a substance in the gas phase at a temperature lower than its critical point....

ous exhalation
Exhalation
Exhalation is the movement of air out of the bronchial tubes, through the airways, to the external environment during breathing....

s, which Avicenna modified into the theory of petrifying
Petrifaction
In geology, petrifaction, petrification or silicification is the process by which organic material is converted into stone by impregnation with silica. It is a rare form of fossilization...

 fluid
Fluid
In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually deforms under an applied shear stress. Fluids are a subset of the phases of matter and include liquids, gases, plasmas and, to some extent, plastic solids....

s (succus lapidificatus), which was elaborated on by Albert of Saxony
Albert of Saxony (philosopher)
Albert of Saxony was a German philosopher known for his contributions to logic and physics...

 in the 14th century and accepted in some form by most naturalist
Naturalist
Naturalist may refer to:* Practitioner of natural history* Conservationist* Advocate of naturalism * Naturalist , autobiography-See also:* The American Naturalist, periodical* Naturalism...

s by the 16th century. Avicenna gave the following explanation for the origin of fossils from the petrifaction
Petrifaction
In geology, petrifaction, petrification or silicification is the process by which organic material is converted into stone by impregnation with silica. It is a rare form of fossilization...

 of plants and animals:
More scientific views of fossils emerged during the Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 noticed discrepancies with the use of the biblical flood narrative as an explanation for fossil origins:

William Smith (1769–1839)
William Smith (geologist)
William 'Strata' Smith was an English geologist, credited with creating the first nationwide geological map. He is known as the "Father of English Geology" for collating the geological history of England and Wales into a single record, although recognition was very slow in coming...

, an English canal engineer, observed that rocks of different ages (based on the law of superposition
Law of superposition
The law of superposition is a key axiom based on observations of natural history that is a foundational principle of sedimentary stratigraphy and so of other geology dependent natural sciences:...

) preserved different assemblages of fossils, and that these assemblages succeeded one another in a regular and determinable order. He observed that rocks from distant locations could be correlated based on the fossils they contained. He termed this the principle of faunal succession.

Smith, who preceded Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

, was unaware of biological evolution and did not know why faunal succession occurred. Biological evolution explains why faunal succession exists: as different organisms evolve, change and go extinct, they leave behind fossils. Faunal succession was one of the chief pieces of evidence cited by Darwin that biological evolution had occurred.

Georges Cuvier
Georges Cuvier
Georges Chrétien Léopold Dagobert Cuvier or Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier , known as Georges Cuvier, was a French naturalist and zoologist...

 came to believe that most if not all the animal fossils he examined were remains of species that were now extinct. This led Cuvier to become an active proponent of the geological school of thought called catastrophism
Catastrophism
Catastrophism is the theory that the Earth has been affected in the past by sudden, short-lived, violent events, possibly worldwide in scope. The dominant paradigm of modern geology is uniformitarianism , in which slow incremental changes, such as erosion, create the Earth's appearance...

. Near the end of his 1796 paper on living and fossil elephants he said:
All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe.

Biological explanations


Early naturalists
Natural science
The natural sciences are branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world by using empirical and scientific methods...

 well understood the similarities and differences of living species leading Linnaeus
Carolus Linnaeus
Carl Linnaeus , also known after his ennoblement as , was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy, and is also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology...

 to develop a hierarchical classification system still in use today. It was Darwin and his contemporaries who first linked the hierarchical structure of the great tree of life in living organisms with the then very sparse fossil record. Darwin eloquently described a process of descent with modification, or evolution, whereby organisms either adapt to natural and changing environmental pressures, or they perish.

When Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, the oldest animal fossils were those from the Cambrian
Cambrian
The Cambrian is the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, lasting from Mya ; it is succeeded by the Ordovician. Its subdivisions, and indeed its base, are somewhat in flux. The period was established by Adam Sedgwick, who named it after Cambria, the Latin name for Wales, where Britain's...

 Period, now known to be about 540 million years old. The absence of older fossils worried Darwin about the implications for the validity of his theories, but he expressed hope that such fossils would be found, noting that: "only a small portion of the world is known with accuracy." Darwin also pondered the sudden appearance of many groups (i.e. phyla
Phylum
In biology, a phylum The term was coined by Georges Cuvier from Greek φῦλον phylon, "race, stock," related to φυλή phyle, "tribe, clan." is a taxonomic rank below kingdom and above class. "Phylum" is equivalent to the botanical term division....

) in the oldest known Cambrian fossiliferous strata.

Further discoveries


Since Darwin's time, the fossil record has been pushed back to between 2.3 and 3.5 billion years before the present. Most of these Precambrian fossils are microscopic bacteria or microfossils
Micropaleontology
Micropaleontology is the branch of paleontology that studies microfossils.-Microfossils:...

. However, macroscopic fossils are now known from the late Proterozoic
Proterozoic
The Proterozoic is a geological eon representing a period before the first abundant complex life on Earth. The name Proterozoic comes from the Greek "earlier life"...

. The Ediacara biota
Ediacara biota
The Ediacara biota consisted of enigmatic tubular and frond-shaped, mostly sessile organisms which lived during the Ediacaran Period . Trace fossils of these organisms have been found worldwide, and represent the earliest known complex multicellular organisms.Simple multicellular organisms such as...

 (also called Vendian biota) dating from 575 million years ago collectively constitutes a richly diverse assembly of early multicellular eukaryote
Eukaryote
A eukaryote is an organism whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes. Eukaryotes may more formally be referred to as the taxon Eukarya or Eukaryota. The defining membrane-bound structure that sets eukaryotic cells apart from prokaryotic cells is the nucleus, or nuclear...

s.

The fossil record and faunal succession form the basis of the science of biostratigraphy
Biostratigraphy
Biostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy which focuses on correlating and assigning relative ages of rock strata by using the fossil assemblages contained within them. Usually the aim is correlation, demonstrating that a particular horizon in one geological section represents the same period...

 or determining the age of rocks based on the fossils they contain. For the first 150 years of geology
Geology
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

, biostratigraphy and superposition were the only means for determining the relative age
Relative dating
Relative dating is the science determining the relative order of past events, without necessarily determining their absolute age.In geology rock or superficial deposits, fossils and lithologies can be used to correlate one stratigraphic column with another...

 of rocks. The geologic time scale
Geologic time scale
The geologic time scale provides a system of chronologic measurement relating stratigraphy to time that is used by geologists, paleontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth...

 was developed based on the relative ages of rock strata as determined by the early paleontologists and stratigrapher
Stratigraphy
Stratigraphy, a branch of geology, studies rock layers and layering . It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary and layered volcanic rocks....

s.

Since the early years of the twentieth century, absolute dating
Absolute dating
Absolute dating is the process of determining an approximate computed age in archaeology and geology. Some scientists prefer the terms chronometric or calendar dating, as use of the word "absolute" implies an unwarranted certainty and precision...

 methods, such as radiometric dating
Radiometric dating
Radiometric dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks, usually based on a comparison between the observed abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope and its decay products, using known decay rates...

 (including potassium/argon, argon/argon, uranium series
Uranium-lead dating
Uranium-lead is one of the oldest and most refined of the radiometric dating schemes, with a routine age range of about 1 million years to over 4.5 billion years, and with routine precisions in the 0.1-1 percent range...

, and, for very recent fossils, radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating is a radiometric dating method that uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 to estimate the age of carbon-bearing materials up to about 58,000 to 62,000 years. Raw, i.e. uncalibrated, radiocarbon ages are usually reported in radiocarbon years "Before Present" ,...

) have been used to verify the relative ages obtained by fossils and to provide absolute ages for many fossils. Radiometric dating has shown that the earliest known stromatolites are over 3.4 billion years old. Various dating methods have been used and are used today depending on local geology and context, and while there is some variance in the results from these dating methods
Geochronology
Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils, and sediments, within a certain degree of uncertainty inherent to the method used. A variety of dating methods are used by geologists to achieve this, and schemes of classification and terminology have been proposed...

, nearly all of them provide evidence for a very old Earth
Age of the Earth
The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years This age is based on evidence from radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples...

, approximately 4.6 billion years.

Modern view


"The fossil record is life’s evolutionary epic that unfolded over four billion years as environmental conditions and genetic potential interacted in accordance with natural selection." The earth’s climate, tectonics, atmosphere, oceans, and periodic disasters invoked the primary selective pressures on all organisms, which they either adapted to, or they perished with or without leaving descendants. Modern paleontology has joined with evolutionary biology to share the interdisciplinary task of unfolding the tree of life, which inevitably leads backwards in time to the microscopic life of the Precambrian when cell structure and functions evolved. Earth’s deep time in the Proterozoic and deeper still in the Archean is only "recounted by microscopic fossils and subtle chemical signals." Molecular biologists, using phylogenetics, can compare protein amino acid or nucleotide sequence homology (i.e., similarity) to infer taxonomy and evolutionary distances among organisms, but with limited statistical confidence. The study of fossils, on the other hand, can more specifically pinpoint when and in what organism branching occurred in the tree of life. Modern phylogenetics and paleontology work together in the clarification of science’s still dim view of the appearance of life and its evolution during deep time on earth.

Niles Eldredge’s
Niles Eldredge
Niles Eldredge is an American paleontologist, who, along with Stephen Jay Gould, proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972.-Education:...

 study of the Phacops trilobite genus supported the hypothesis that modifications to the arrangement of the trilobite’s eye lenses proceeded by fits and starts over millions of years during the Devonian
Devonian
The Devonian is a geologic period and system of the Paleozoic Era spanning from the end of the Silurian Period, about 416.0 ± 2.8 Mya , to the beginning of the Carboniferous Period, about 359.2 ± 2.5 Mya...

. Eldredge's interpretation of the Phacops fossil record was that the aftermaths of the lens changes, but not the rapidly occurring evolutionary process, were fossilized. This and other data led Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation....

 and Niles Eldredge
Niles Eldredge
Niles Eldredge is an American paleontologist, who, along with Stephen Jay Gould, proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972.-Education:...

 to publish the seminal paper on punctuated equilibrium
Punctuated equilibrium
Punctuated equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis...

 in 1971.

Example of modern development


An example of modern paleontological progress is the application of synchrotron
Synchrotron
A synchrotron is a particular type of cyclic particle accelerator in which the magnetic field and the electric field are carefully synchronised with the travelling particle beam. The proton synchrotron was originally conceived by Sir Marcus Oliphant...

 X-ray
X-ray
X-radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation. X-rays have a wavelength in the range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz and energies in the range 120 eV to 120 keV. They are shorter in wavelength than UV rays and longer than gamma...

 tomographic
Tomography
Tomography refers to imaging by sections or sectioning, through the use of any kind of penetrating wave. A device used in tomography is called a tomograph, while the image produced is a tomogram. The method is used in radiology, archaeology, biology, geophysics, oceanography, materials science,...

 techniques to early Cambrian bilaterian embryo
Embryo
An embryo is a multicellular diploid eukaryote in its earliest stage of development, from the time of first cell division until birth, hatching, or germination...

nic microfossils that has recently yielded new insights of metazoan
Animal
Animals are a major group of multicellular, eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Animalia or Metazoa. Their body plan eventually becomes fixed as they develop, although some undergo a process of metamorphosis later on in their life. Most animals are motile, meaning they can move spontaneously and...

 evolution at its earliest stages. The tomography technique provides previously unattainable three-dimensional resolution at the limits of fossilization. Fossils of two enigmatic bilaterians, the worm-like Markuelia
Markuelia
Markuelia is a genus of fossil worm-like bilaterian animals allied to Ecdysozoa and known from strata of Lower Cambrian to Lower Ordovician age containing five species....

and a putative, primitive protostome
Protostome
Protostomia are a clade of animals. Together with the deuterostomes and a few smaller phyla, they make up the Bilateria, mostly comprising animals with bilateral symmetry and three germ layers...

, Pseudooides, provide a peek at germ layer
Germ layer
A germ layer, occasionally referred to as a germinal epithelium, is a group of cells, formed during animal embryogenesis. Germ layers are particularly pronounced in the vertebrates; however, all animals more complex than sponges produce two or three primary tissue layers...

 embryonic development. These 543-million-year-old embryos support the emergence of some aspects of arthropod
Arthropod
An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton , a segmented body, and jointed appendages. Arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda , and include the insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and others...

 development earlier than previously thought in the late Proterozoic
Proterozoic
The Proterozoic is a geological eon representing a period before the first abundant complex life on Earth. The name Proterozoic comes from the Greek "earlier life"...

. The preserved embryos from China
China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 and Siberia
Siberia
Siberia is an extensive region constituting almost all of Northern Asia. Comprising the central and eastern portion of the Russian Federation, it was part of the Soviet Union from its beginning, as its predecessor states, the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, conquered it during the 16th...

 underwent rapid diagenetic
Diagenesis
In geology and oceanography, diagenesis is any chemical, physical, or biological change undergone by a sediment after its initial deposition and during and after its lithification, exclusive of surface alteration and metamorphism. These changes happen at relatively low temperatures and pressures...

 phosphatization resulting in exquisite preservation, including cell structures. This research is a notable example of how knowledge encoded by the fossil record continues to contribute otherwise unattainable information on the emergence and development of life on Earth. For example, the research suggests Markuelia has closest affinity to priapulid worms, and is adjacent to the evolutionary branching of Priapulida
Priapulida
Priapulida is a phylum of marine worms. They are named for their extensible spiny proboscis, which, in some species, may have a shape like that of a human penis...

, Nematoda
Nematode
The nematodes or roundworms are the most diverse phylum of pseudocoelomates, and one of the most diverse of all animals. Nematode species are very difficult to distinguish; over 28,000 have been described, of which over 16,000 are parasitic. It has been estimated that the total number of nematode...

 and Arthropod
Arthropod
An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton , a segmented body, and jointed appendages. Arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda , and include the insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and others...

a.

Rarity of fossils


Fossilization is an exceptionally rare occurrence, because most components of formerly living things tend to decompose relatively quickly following death. In order for an organism to be fossilized, the remains normally need to be covered by sediment
Sediment
Sediment is naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of fluids such as wind, water, or ice, and/or by the force of gravity acting on the particle itself....

 as soon as possible. However there are exceptions to this, such as if an organism becomes frozen, desiccated
Desiccation
Desiccation is the state of extreme dryness, or the process of extreme drying. A desiccant is a hygroscopic substance that induces or sustains such a state in its local vicinity in a moderately sealed container.-Science:...

, or comes to rest in an anoxic
Anoxic sea water
Anoxic waters are areas of sea water or fresh water that are depleted of dissolved oxygen. This condition is generally found in areas that have restricted water exchange....

 (oxygen
Oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

-free) environment. There are several different types of fossils and fossilization processes.

Due to the combined effect of taphonomic processes
Taphonomy
Taphonomy is the study of decaying organisms over time and how they become fossilized . The term taphonomy was introduced to paleontology in 1940 by Russian scientist Ivan Efremov to describe the study of the transition of remains, parts, or products of organisms, from the biosphere, to the...

 and simple mathematical chance, fossilization tends to favor organisms with hard body parts, those that were widespread, and those that existed for a long time before going extinct. On the other hand, it is very unusual to find fossils of small, soft bodied, geographically restricted and geologically ephemeral organisms, because of their relative rarity and low likelihood of preservation.

Larger specimens (macrofossil
Macrofossil
Macrofossils are preserved organic remains large enough to be visible without a microscope. Most fossils discussed in the article Fossil are macrofossils.-Macrofossil contrasted with Microfossil:...

s) are more often observed, dug up and displayed, although microscopic remains (microfossils) are actually far more common in the fossil record.

Some casual observers have been perplexed by the rarity of transitional species
Transitional fossil
A transitional fossil is any fossilized remains of a lifeform that exhibits characteristics of two distinct taxonomic groups. A transitional fossil is the fossil of an organism near the branching point where major individual lineages diverge...

 within the fossil record. The conventional explanation for this rarity was given by Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

, who stated that "the extreme imperfection of the geological record," combined with the short duration and narrow geographical range of transitional species, made it unlikely that many such fossils would be found. Simply put, the conditions under which fossilization takes place are quite rare; and it is highly unlikely that any given organism will leave behind a fossil. Eldredge and Gould developed their theory of punctuated equilibrium
Punctuated equilibrium
Punctuated equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis...

 in part to explain the pattern of stasis and sudden appearance in the fossil record. Furthermore, in the strictest sense, nearly all fossils are "transitional," due to the improbability that any given fossil represents the absolute termination of an evolutionary path.

Permineralization


Permineralization
Permineralization
Permineralization is a process of fossilization in which mineral deposits form internal casts of organisms. Carried by water, these minerals fill the spaces within organic tissue...

 occurs after burial, as the empty spaces within an organism (spaces filled with liquid or gas during life) become filled with mineral-rich groundwater and the minerals precipitate from the groundwater, thus occupying the empty spaces. This process can occur in very small spaces, such as within the cell wall
Cell wall
The cell wall is the tough, usually flexible but sometimes fairly rigid layer that surrounds some types of cells. It is located outside the cell membrane and provides these cells with structural support and protection, and also acts as a filtering mechanism. A major function of the cell wall is to...

 of a plant cell
Plant cell
Plant cells are eukaryotic cells that differ in several key respects from the cells of other eukaryotic organisms. Their distinctive features include:...

. Small scale permineralization can produce very detailed fossils. For permineralization to occur, the organism must become covered by sediment soon after death or soon after the initial decaying process. The degree to which the remains are decayed when covered determines the later details of the fossil. Some fossils consist only of skeletal remains or teeth; other fossils contain traces of skin
Skin
-Dermis:The dermis is the layer of skin beneath the epidermis that consists of connective tissue and cushions the body from stress and strain. The dermis is tightly connected to the epidermis by a basement membrane. It also harbors many Mechanoreceptors that provide the sense of touch and heat...

, feather
Feather
Feathers are one of the epidermal growths that form the distinctive outer covering, or plumage, on birds and some non-avian theropod dinosaurs. They are considered the most complex integumentary structures found in vertebrates, and indeed a premier example of a complex evolutionary novelty. They...

s or even soft tissues. This is a form of diagenesis
Diagenesis
In geology and oceanography, diagenesis is any chemical, physical, or biological change undergone by a sediment after its initial deposition and during and after its lithification, exclusive of surface alteration and metamorphism. These changes happen at relatively low temperatures and pressures...

.


Casts and molds


In some cases the original remains of the organism have been completely dissolved or otherwise destroyed. When all that is left is an organism-shaped hole in the rock, it is called an external mold. If this hole is later filled with other minerals, it is a cast. An endocast
Endocast
An endocast is the internal cast of a hollow object, often specifically used for an endocasts of the cranial vault. Endocasts can be man-made for examining the properties of a hollow, inaccessible space, or occur naturally through fossilisation....

 or internal mold is formed when sediments or minerals fill the internal cavity of an organism, such as the inside of a bivalve or snail
Snail
Snail is a common name applied to most of the members of the molluscan class Gastropoda that have coiled shells in the adult stage. When the word is used in its most general sense, it includes sea snails, land snails and freshwater snails. The word snail without any qualifier is however more often...

 or the hollow of a skull
Skull
The skull is a bony structure in the head of many animals that supports the structures of the face and forms a cavity for the brain.The skull is composed of two parts: the cranium and the mandible. A skull without a mandible is only a cranium. Animals that have skulls are called craniates...

.

Authigenic mineralisation


This is a special form of cast and mold formation. If the chemistry is right, the organism (or fragment of organism) can act as a nucleus for the precipitation of minerals such as siderite, resulting in a nodule forming around it. If this happens rapidly before significant decay to the organic tissue, very fine three-dimensional morphological detail can be preserved. Nodules from the Carboniferous Mazon Creek fossil beds
Mazon Creek fossil beds
The Mazon Creek fossil beds are a conservation found near Morris, in Grundy County, Illinois. The fossil beds are located in ironstone concretions, formed approximately in the mid-Pennsylvanian epoch of the Carboniferous period...

 of Illinois, USA, are among the best documented examples of authigenic mineralisation.

Replacement and recrystallization


Replacement occurs when the shell, bone or other tissue is replaced with another mineral. In some cases mineral replacement of the original shell occurs so gradually and at such fine scales that microstructural features are preserved despite the total loss of original material. A shell is said to be recrystallized when the original skeletal compounds are still present but in a different crystal form, as from aragonite
Aragonite
Aragonite is a carbonate mineral, one of the two common, naturally occurring, crystal forms of calcium carbonate, CaCO3...

 to calcite
Calcite
Calcite is a carbonate mineral and the most stable polymorph of calcium carbonate . The other polymorphs are the minerals aragonite and vaterite. Aragonite will change to calcite at 380-470°C, and vaterite is even less stable.-Properties:...

.

Adpression (compression-impression) fossils


Compression fossil
Compression fossil
A compression fossil is a fossil preserved in sedimentary rock that has undergone physical compression. While it is uncommon to find animals preserved as good compression fossils, it is very common to find plants preserved this way...

s, such as those of fossil ferns, are the result of chemical reduction of the complex organic molecules composing the organism's tissues. In this case the fossil consists of original material, albeit in a geochemically altered state. This chemical change is an expression of diagenesis
Diagenesis
In geology and oceanography, diagenesis is any chemical, physical, or biological change undergone by a sediment after its initial deposition and during and after its lithification, exclusive of surface alteration and metamorphism. These changes happen at relatively low temperatures and pressures...

. Often what remains is a carbonaceous film
Carbonaceous film
A carbonaceous film is an organism outline of a fossil. It is a type of fossil found in any rock when organic material is compressed, leaving a thick carbon film....

 known as a phytoleim, in which case the fossil is known as a compression. Often, however, the phytoleim is lost and all that remains is an impression of the organism in the rock—an impression fossil. In many cases, however, compressions and impressions occur together. For instance, when the rock is broken open, the phytoleim will often be attached to one part (compression), whereas the counterpart will just be an impression. For this reason, it has proved to convenient to have a combined term for both modes of preservation: adpression.

Bioimmuration



Bioimmuration is a type of preservation in which a skeletal organism overgrows or otherwise subsumes another organism, preserving the latter, or an impression of it, within the skeleton. Usually it is a sessile
Sessility (zoology)
In zoology, sessility is a characteristic of animals which are not able to move about. They are usually permanently attached to a solid substrate of some kind, such as a part of a plant or dead tree trunk, a rock, or the hull of a ship in the case of barnacles. Corals lay down their own...

 skeletal organism, such as a bryozoan or an oyster, which grows along a substrate
Substrate (biology)
In biology a substrate is the surface a plant or animal lives upon and grows on. A substrate can include biotic or abiotic materials and animals. For example, encrusting algae that lives on a rock can be substrate for another animal that lives on top of the algae. See also substrate .-External...

, covering other sessile encrusters. Sometimes the bioimmured organism is soft-bodied and is then preserved in negative relief as a kind of external mold. There are also cases where an organism settles on top of a living skeletal organism and grows upwards, preserving the settler in its skeleton. Bioimmuration is known in the fossil record from the Ordovician to the Recent.

To sum up, fossilization processes proceed differently for different kinds of tissues and under different kinds of conditions.

Trace fossils



Trace fossil
Trace fossil
Trace fossils, also called ichnofossils , are geological records of biological activity. Trace fossils may be impressions made on the substrate by an organism: for example, burrows, borings , urolites , footprints and feeding marks, and root cavities...

s are the remains of trackways, burrows, bioerosion
Bioerosion
Bioerosion describes the erosion of hard ocean substrates – and less often terrestrial substrates – by living organisms. Marine bioerosion can be caused by mollusks, polychaete worms, phoronids, sponges, crustaceans, echinoids, and fish; it can occur on coastlines, on coral reefs, and...

, egg
Egg (biology)
An egg is an organic vessel in which an embryo first begins to develop. In most birds, reptiles, insects, molluscs, fish, and monotremes, an egg is the zygote, resulting from fertilization of the ovum, which is expelled from the body and permitted to develop outside the body until the developing...

s and eggshells, nests, droppings and other types of impressions. Fossilized droppings, called coprolite
Coprolite
A coprolite is fossilized animal dung. Coprolites are classified as trace fossils as opposed to body fossils, as they give evidence for the animal's behaviour rather than morphology. The name is derived from the Greek words κοπρος / kopros meaning 'dung' and λιθος / lithos meaning 'stone'. They...

s, can give insight into the feeding behavior of animals and can therefore be of great importance.

Microfossils




'Microfossil' is a descriptive term applied to fossilized plants and animals whose size is just at or below the level at which the fossil can be analyzed by the naked eye. A commonly applied cutoff point between "micro" and "macro" fossils
Macrofossil
Macrofossils are preserved organic remains large enough to be visible without a microscope. Most fossils discussed in the article Fossil are macrofossils.-Macrofossil contrasted with Microfossil:...

 is 1 mm, although this is only an approximate guide. Microfossils may either be complete (or near-complete) organisms in themselves (such as the marine plankters foraminifera
Foraminifera
The Foraminifera , or forams for short, are a large group of amoeboid protists which are among the commonest plankton species. They have reticulating pseudopods, fine strands of cytoplasm that branch and merge to form a dynamic net...

 and coccolithophore
Coccolithophore
Coccolithophores are single-celled algae, protists, and phytoplankton belonging to the division of haptophytes. They are distinguished by special calcium carbonate plates of uncertain function called coccoliths , which are important microfossils...

s) or component parts (such as small teeth or spores
Palynology
Palynology is the science that studies contemporary and fossil palynomorphs, including pollen, spores, orbicules, dinoflagellate cysts, acritarchs, chitinozoans and scolecodonts, together with particulate organic matter and kerogen found in sedimentary rocks and sediments...

) of larger animals or plants. Microfossils are of critical importance as a reservoir of paleoclimate
Paleoclimatology
Paleoclimatology is the study of changes in climate taken on the scale of the entire history of Earth. It uses a variety of proxy methods from the Earth and life sciences to obtain data previously preserved within rocks, sediments, ice sheets, tree rings, corals, shells and microfossils; it then...

 information, and are also commonly used by biostratigraphers
Biostratigraphy
Biostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy which focuses on correlating and assigning relative ages of rock strata by using the fossil assemblages contained within them. Usually the aim is correlation, demonstrating that a particular horizon in one geological section represents the same period...

 to assist in the correlation of rock units.

Resin fossils



Fossil resin (colloquially called amber
Amber
Amber is fossilized tree resin , which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Amber is used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and as jewelry. There are five classes of amber, defined on the basis of their chemical constituents...

) is a natural polymer
Polymer
A polymer is a large molecule composed of repeating structural units. These subunits are typically connected by covalent chemical bonds...

 found in many types of strata throughout the world, even the Arctic
Arctic
The Arctic is a region located at the northern-most part of the Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The Arctic region consists of a vast, ice-covered ocean, surrounded by treeless permafrost...

. The oldest fossil resin dates to the Triassic
Triassic
The Triassic is a geologic period and system that extends from about 250 to 200 Mya . As the first period of the Mesozoic Era, the Triassic follows the Permian and is followed by the Jurassic. Both the start and end of the Triassic are marked by major extinction events...

, though most dates to the Tertiary
Tertiary
The Tertiary is a deprecated term for a geologic period 65 million to 2.6 million years ago. The Tertiary covered the time span between the superseded Secondary period and the Quaternary...

. The excretion of the resin by certain plants is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation
Adaptation
An adaptation in biology is a trait with a current functional role in the life history of an organism that is maintained and evolved by means of natural selection. An adaptation refers to both the current state of being adapted and to the dynamic evolutionary process that leads to the adaptation....

 for protection from insects and to seal wounds caused by damage elements. Fossil resin often contains other fossils called inclusions that were captured by the sticky resin. These include bacteria, fungi, other plants, and animals. Animal inclusions are usually small invertebrates, predominantly arthropod
Arthropod
An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton , a segmented body, and jointed appendages. Arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda , and include the insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and others...

s such as insects and spiders, and only extremely rarely a vertebrate
Vertebrate
Vertebrates are animals that are members of the subphylum Vertebrata . Vertebrates are the largest group of chordates, with currently about 58,000 species described. Vertebrates include the jawless fishes, bony fishes, sharks and rays, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds...

 such as a small lizard. Preservation of inclusions can be exquisite, including small fragments of DNA
DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms . The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in...

.

Pseudofossils




Pseudofossil
Pseudofossil
Pseudofossils are inorganic objects, markings, or impressions that might be mistaken for fossils. Pseudofossils may be misleading, as some types of mineral deposits can mimic lifeforms by forming what appear to be highly detailed or organized structures. One common example is when manganese oxides...

s are visual patterns in rocks that are produced by naturally occurring geologic processes rather than biologic processes. They can easily be mistaken for real fossils. Some pseudofossils, such as dendrite
Dendrite (crystal)
A crystal dendrite is a crystal that develops with a typical multi-branching tree-like form. Dendritic crystal growth is very common and illustrated by snowflake formation and frost patterns on a window. Dendritic crystallization forms a natural fractal pattern...

s, are formed by naturally occurring fissures in the rock that get filled up by percolating minerals. Other types of pseudofossils are kidney ore (round shapes in iron ore) and moss agate
Agate
Agate is a microcrystalline variety of silica, chiefly chalcedony, characterised by its fineness of grain and brightness of color. Although agates may be found in various kinds of rock, they are classically associated with volcanic rocks and can be common in certain metamorphic rocks.-Etymology...

s, which look like moss or plant leaves. Concretion
Concretion
A concretion is a volume of sedimentary rock in which a mineral cement fills the porosity . Concretions are often ovoid or spherical in shape, although irregular shapes also occur. The word 'concretion' is derived from the Latin con meaning 'together' and crescere meaning 'to grow'...

s, spherical or ovoid-shaped nodules found in some sedimentary strata, were once thought to be dinosaur
Dinosaur
Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade and superorder Dinosauria. They were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for over 160 million years, from the late Triassic period until the end of the Cretaceous , when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of...

 eggs, and are often mistaken for fossils as well.

Living fossils


Living fossil is an informal term used for any living species
Species
In biology, a species is one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are...

 that is apparently identical or closely resembles a species previously known only from fossils—that is, it is as if the ancient fossil had "come to life."

This can be (a) a species or taxon
Taxon
|thumb|270px|[[African elephants]] form a widely-accepted taxon, the [[genus]] LoxodontaA taxon is a group of organisms, which a taxonomist adjudges to be a unit. Usually a taxon is given a name and a rank, although neither is a requirement...

 known only from fossils until living representatives were discovered, such as the lobe-finned coelacanth
Coelacanth
Coelacanths are members of an order of fish that includes the oldest living lineage of Sarcopterygii known to date....

, primitive monoplacophora
Monoplacophora
Monoplacophora, meaning "bearing one plate", is a polyphyletic class of mollusks with a cap-like shell, living on the bottom of deep sea. Extant representatives were unknown until 1952; previously they were known only from the fossil record.- Definition :...

n mollusk, and the Chinese maidenhair
Ginkgo
Ginkgo , also spelled gingko and known as the Maidenhair Tree, is a unique species of tree with no close living relatives...

 tree, or (b) a single living species with no close relatives, such as the New Caledonia
New Caledonia
New Caledonia is a special collectivity of France located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, east of Australia and about from Metropolitan France. The archipelago, part of the Melanesia subregion, includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Belep archipelago, the Isle of...

n Kagu
Kagu
The Kagu or Cagou is a crested, long-legged, and bluish-grey bird endemic to the dense mountain forests of New Caledonia. It is the only surviving member of the genus Rhynochetos and the family Rhynochetidae, although a second species has been described from the fossil record...

, or the Sunbittern
Sunbittern
The Sunbittern, Eurypyga helias is a bittern-like bird of tropical regions of the Americas, and the sole member of the family Eurypygidae and genus Eurypyga.-Description and reproduction:...

, or (c) a small group of closely related species with no other close relatives, such as the oxygen-producing, primordial stromatolite
Stromatolite
Stromatolites or stromatoliths are layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria ....

, inarticulate lampshell
Brachiopod
Brachiopods are a phylum of marine animals that have hard "valves" on the upper and lower surfaces, unlike the left and right arrangement in bivalve molluscs. Brachiopod valves are hinged at the rear end, while the front can be opened for feeding or closed for protection...

 Lingula
Lingula (genus)
Lingula is a genus of brachiopods within the class Lingulata. Lingula is known since the Tertiary.-Species:The following species are recognised:*Lingula adamsi Dall, 1873*Lingula anatina Lamarck, 1801*Lingula dregeri Andreae, 1893...

, many-chambered pearly Nautilus
Nautilus
Nautilus is the common name of marine creatures of cephalopod family Nautilidae, the sole extant family of the superfamily Nautilaceae and of its smaller but near equal suborder, Nautilina. It comprises six living species in two genera, the type of which is the genus Nautilus...

, rootless whisk fern
Psilotum
Psilotum is a genus of fern-like vascular plants, one of two genera in the family Psilotaceae, order Psilotales, and class Psilotopsida...

, armored horseshoe crab
Horseshoe crab
The Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, is a marine chelicerate arthropod. Despite its name, it is more closely related to spiders, ticks, and scorpions than to crabs. Horseshoe crabs are most commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico and along the northern Atlantic coast of North America...

, and dinosaur-like tuatara
Tuatara
The tuatara is a reptile endemic to New Zealand which, though it resembles most lizards, is actually part of a distinct lineage, order Sphenodontia. The two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of its order, which flourished around 200 million years ago. Their most recent common...

 that are the sole survivors of a once large and widespread groups in the fossil record.

See also



  • Bioerosion
    Bioerosion
    Bioerosion describes the erosion of hard ocean substrates – and less often terrestrial substrates – by living organisms. Marine bioerosion can be caused by mollusks, polychaete worms, phoronids, sponges, crustaceans, echinoids, and fish; it can occur on coastlines, on coral reefs, and...

  • Coprolite
    Coprolite
    A coprolite is fossilized animal dung. Coprolites are classified as trace fossils as opposed to body fossils, as they give evidence for the animal's behaviour rather than morphology. The name is derived from the Greek words κοπρος / kopros meaning 'dung' and λιθος / lithos meaning 'stone'. They...

  • Cryptospores
    Cryptospores
    Cryptospores are fossilised primitive plant spores that first appear in the fossil record during the late Ordovician to early Silurian period.-Occurrence:Cryptospores are generally found in non-marine rocks and decrease in abundance with distance offshore...

  • Elvis taxon
    Elvis taxon
    In paleontology, an Elvis taxon is a taxon which has been misidentified as having re-emerged in the fossil record after a period of presumed extinction, but is not actually a descendant of the original taxon, instead having developed a similar morphology through convergent evolution...

  • Fossil collecting
    Fossil collecting
    Fossil collecting is the collection of fossils for scientific study, hobby, or profit. Fossil collecting, as practiced by amateurs, is the predecessor of modern paleontology and many still collect fossils and study fossils as amateurs...

  • History of paleontology
    History of paleontology
    The history of paleontology traces the history of the effort to understand the history of life on Earth by studying the fossil record left behind by living organisms...

  • Ichnology
    Ichnology
    Ichnology is the branch of geology that deals with traces of organismal behavior, such as burrows and footprints. It is generally considered as a branch of paleontology; however, only one division of ichnology, paleoichnology, deals with trace fossils, while neoichnology is the study of modern traces...

  • Lazarus taxon
    Lazarus taxon
    In paleontology, a Lazarus taxon is a taxon that disappears from one or more periods of the fossil record, only to appear again later. The term refers to the account in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead...

  • List of extant animal genera represented in the fossil record
  • List of fossil sites
  • List of fossils
  • List of transitional fossils
  • National Fossil Day
    National Fossil Day
    National Fossil Day was established to promote the scientific and educational values of fossils. This nationwide celebration was first held on October 13, 2010, during Earth Science Week. The National Park Service and over 130 partners, including museums, institutions, organizations and other...

  • Paleobiology
    Paleobiology
    Paleobiology is a growing and comparatively new discipline which combines the methods and findings of the natural science biology with the methods and findings of the earth science paleontology...

  • Paleobotany
    Paleobotany
    Paleobotany, also spelled as palaeobotany , is the branch of paleontology or paleobiology dealing with the recovery and identification of plant remains from geological contexts, and their use for the biological reconstruction of past environments , and both the evolutionary history of plants, with a...

  • Petrification
  • Shark teeth
  • Subfossil
    Subfossil
    Subfossil refers to remains whose fossilization process is not complete, either for lack of time or because the conditions in which they were buried were not optimal for fossilization....

  • Taphonomy
    Taphonomy
    Taphonomy is the study of decaying organisms over time and how they become fossilized . The term taphonomy was introduced to paleontology in 1940 by Russian scientist Ivan Efremov to describe the study of the transition of remains, parts, or products of organisms, from the biosphere, to the...

  • Trace fossil
    Trace fossil
    Trace fossils, also called ichnofossils , are geological records of biological activity. Trace fossils may be impressions made on the substrate by an organism: for example, burrows, borings , urolites , footprints and feeding marks, and root cavities...

  • Fossil trade
    Fossil trade
    Fossil trading is the practice of buying and selling fossils. This is many times done illegally with stolen fossils, and many important scientific specimens are lost each year...



Further reading

  • It’s extremely hard to become a fossil, by Olivia Judson
    Olivia Judson
    Doctor Olivia P. Judson is an evolutionary biologist and science writer.- Career :Judson, who is the daughter of science historian Horace Freeland Judson,was a pupil of W.D. Hamilton....

    , The New York Times
    The New York Times
    The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

  • Bones Are Not the Only Fossils, by Olivia Judson
    Olivia Judson
    Doctor Olivia P. Judson is an evolutionary biologist and science writer.- Career :Judson, who is the daughter of science historian Horace Freeland Judson,was a pupil of W.D. Hamilton....

    , The New York Times

External links