How Fossils are Found

From Issue: Discovery 11/1/2003

Once you start learning about dinosaurs, it doesn’t take long to discover that most of our information about them comes from fossils. But what are fossils? A fossil is any trace left by something that lived in the past. Animals, plants, and humans have all left many fossils. Some of the most famous fossils are those of the dinosaurs.

How are fossils formed, you might ask? Does every living animal or plant tum into a fossil when it dies? No, every living thing does not become a fossil. In fact, it is very rare for an animal or plant to be fossilized. Let’s think about this for a minute. If you see a dead animal on the side of the road, what usually happens to that animal? Does it tum into a fossil? No, it doesn’t. Most of the time, scavengers such as buzzards or opossums carry it off. Also, bugs, worms, bacteria, and enzymes cause the animal to rot and decay so that, eventually, no trace of it remains. However, that is not always the case. In some instances, an animal (like a dinosaur) or a plant gets buried very quickly. No scavengers can find it, and oxygen, which is a major cause of decay, cannot get to it. Even in this protected environment, much of the soft tissue (such as fur and skin) decays, but the harder structures (like bones and teeth) last longer. Water that contains minerals, such as silica, seeps through the bones and teeth. The animal’s bones begin to decay, but the minerals in the water start to fill in the decaying areas. Eventually, minerals replace the entire bone or tooth. When the fossil is discovered years later, the original bones have turned into mineralized rock. This is one of the ways fossils are formed.

In some cases, the animal is buried and decays entirely, but when it does, it leaves a hollow mold that preserves the shape and size of its bones. Another type of fossilization occurs when insects like mosquitoes or flies get trapped in tree sap (called amber).

Some people think that this process of fossilization must take thousands or even millions of years, but that is not the case. In fact, a miner’s hat has been found that had been totally fossilized (turned into rocky mineral). Also, a western boot was found that had a bone inside it that had fossilized. The boot, however, had not fossilized, which shows that some materials, such as bone, fossilize better than other materials, like leather or animal skin.

When we find fossils of dinosaurs, we often find them in huge piles all jumbled together. These large piles of dinosaurs must have been buried very quickly. What do you think could have buried many huge dinosaurs at the same time all around the world? One good answer would be the Flood of Noah. If local floods today can cause whole roads and houses to be buried, just imagine what a worldwide flood could do! When we look at the “record of the rocks,” we find that fossils do not take millions of years to form, and that the Flood of Noah’s day could easily have created many of the fossils we see today.


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