Inside: What are fossils? They are the first love of paleontologists. The older the better. Love of dinosaurs may have started the passion. But there is so much more to the field of paleontology.
What are fossils? Great question! Paleontologists’ first love are fossils. The older they are the better. Love of dinosaurs may be the first reason a child dreams of becoming a paleontologist. But there is so much more to this field than dinosaurs.
“There is nothing like geology; the pleasure of the first day’s partridge shooting or first day’s hunting cannot be compared to finding a fine group of fossil bones, which tell their story of former times with almost a living tongue.” Charles Darwin, letter to his sister Catherine, 1834”
Don’t forget to check out the quiz at the bottom. See how much you’ve learned about fossils!
What are Fossils?
Fossilization is a process. Remains of once living organisms are preserved in a hard, petrified form. A fossil can take many forms but is always a preserved remain, impression or trace of something once living in a past geological age. So, what kinds of things does paleontology examine? They include:
- DNA/molecular remnants
- animals/plants in amber
- petrified wood, oil, coal
Types of Fossils
There are 5 main types of fossils. They all come from the remains of things once living from a long ago geological age. But how they are created is somewhat different for each.
Bones and whole skeletons have been unearthed. These are a very rare type of fossil and form when the entire organism is encased in ice, volcanic ash or a peat bog. In many cases only the hard shells or bony skeleton are preserved. Because soft tissue, muscle, organs often disintegrate after death, animals with strong skeletons tend to leave their bones behind. If conditions are ideal, they can survive for millions of years. These fossils include:
- dinosaur bones
- shark teeth
- oyster shells
Whole body fossils
These include whole organisms preserved in ice or amber or peat moss. These fossils include:
Mold and Cast
Molds and casts also look like bones or body parts. A mold is a cavity in rock left when the parts of an organism decay. Casts form when sediment washes into a mold and forms rock that is shaped like the organism. These types of body fossils include:
- crinoids-marine animals like sea lilies and feather stars
- Pompeii people
Also known as biomarkers, these fossils are the remains of cell chemicals found in sediment and rock. They can remain stable and preserved for billions of years. They include:
- nucleic acids like DNA and RNA
Also known as ichnofossils, they include marks or evidence of activity or behaviors of ancient animals or plants. They do not include any actual biological remains of the actual organism. In any case, they do provide evidence that something living was once there. They include:
- rock evidence of burrows or nests
- footprints preserved in sediment
- coprolites (fossilized poo)
Permineralization and Petrification
Some bones or whole skeletons are actually rock formed when minerals from groundwater filled the spaces in the cells of bones left over after decay of the soft tissues. This process results in the creation of rock that takes the exact shape of bones or in some rare cases the entire skeleton of an animal. These kinds of fossils feel much different from real bone. As well, they are much heavier. The process of creating rock fossils is known as permineralization. Dinosaur bones are often of this type.
Petrification fossils are created in a similar matter. However, all of the organism’s organic matter is replaced by minerals and turned to stone. Petrified wood and many trilobite fossils are of this type.
What can we Find Out from Fossils?
A lot of information can be figured out from fossils. Paleontologists examined pterosaur bones which were a type of flying reptile. As a result, they found out their bones were hollow and light just like birds.
Oyster shells have one ring for every year of life. Paleontologists can use oyster shell rings for finding out cool information just like tree rings. The number of rings an oyster shell has tells us its age. As well, by looking at the depth of their rings, paleontologists can understand when the climate was good (wide rings) as well as when the climate was poor (thin rings).
Paleontologists can use fossils to learn so much about what life was like millions of years ago.
Read more in this paleontology series: What Does Paleontology Mean and What Can We Learn?
Take the quiz and see how much you’ve learned about fossils: