Blackwell Publishing

Fossils and the history of life - How are fossils formed?


What is a fossil?

A fossil is any trace of past life. The most obvious fossils are body parts, such as shells, bones, and teeth; but fossils also include

• trace fossils: remains of the activity of living things, such as burrows or footprints

• chemical fossils: the organic chemicals they form.

Fossilization is an improbable eventuality. It is more probable for some kinds of species than others, and for some parts of an organism than for other parts.

The animation illustrates how fossilization may take place. After burial in sediment, the fossils slowly transform through time; but the transformed remains, if they are preserved, can still tell us (after expert interpretation) much about the original living form.

The image opposite is of a fossilized pterosaur Pterodactylus kochi from the Jurassic period.

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