Difference between revisions of "Fossils"

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''Side Note:'' Putting pages in page protectors makes it easier to flip through fast, and pages are less likely to rip.  
''Side Note:'' Putting pages in page protectors makes it easier to flip through fast, and pages are less likely to rip.  
''Remember:'' All pages '''must''' be hole punched.
''Remember:'' All pages '''must''' be hole punched.
'''How long should my binder be?'''
'''How long should my binder be?'''

Revision as of 23:31, 17 December 2014

Fossils is an identification event which rotates with Rocks and Minerals every three years. It includes identifying various fossilized animals and plants, providing details about these creatures such as the environment it lived in, its mode of life, how it formed, etc., and answering questions on general paleontology. This article will cover the basic information required for this event as well as give tips on how to succeed at the competition. There is always a Fossil List you need to be able to identify and know information about.

Fossil Formation

There are several ways that fossils can form, ranging from the organism being replaced by minerals to the organism getting trapped in amber. This section explains the different types of fossils.


Preserves life form with some tissue or skin intact. Specimens preserved this way are very fragile. This is a rare form of "fossilization". Mummification is not truly fossilization.

External Molds

Imprints of the organism embedded in rocks.


These are formed when external molds are filled with sediment.

Internal molds

These occur when sediment fills the shell of a deceased organism, such as a bivalve or a gastropod. These remain after the organism's remains decompose to show the internal features of the organism


These occur when minerals slowly replace the various organic tissues of an organism with minerals. The most common mineral to cause petrification is silicon, but other minerals will also work.


These occur when over time all parts of the original organism except the carbon are removed from the fossil over time. The remaining carbon is the same carbon that the organism was made of.


These occur when original minerals in the fossil over time revert into more stable minerals, such as an apatite shell recrystallizing into the more thermodynamically stable calcite.


This occurs when the hard parts of the organism are replaced with minerals over time.

Trace fossils

Trace fossils are fossils that aren't exactly part of the organism. These include footprints, burrows, eggshells, and my personal favorite, coprolite (or fossilized excrement).They give insight into an organism's behavior.

Actual remains

These are much rarer than other fossil types. These are still intact parts of the organism. Actual remains can be seen preserved in ice, tar, or amber. A good example is mammoth hair. It is often frozen and still preserved.


When organisms become trapped in tar, due to the oxygen deprived environment, it allows for the rapid burial of body parts which are well preserved. A good example is the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

Other info

Fossils almost always form in sedimentary rocks. In igneous and metamorphic rocks extreme heat and pressure needed to form them often destroys the fossilizing organisms, or warps it beyond recognition. When an organism dies, if the conditions are right, it becomes covered in sediments, which, after being subjected to pressure, become rock. This takes a very long time, and the actual organism decomposes by then. A soft organism (like a worm or jellyfish) does not get fossilized (usually) because it decomposes too fast. Only the hard parts (skeletons and teeth) remain long enough to keep the imprint in the rock while the rock is forming.

Fossil Environments

Fossils form (for the most part) in bodies of water, because that's where sedimentation occurs. Fossilization needs to occur in places where the dead organism won't be disturbed, so a place in the ocean devoid of wave activity is required. Most of these marine fossils do not form in the far depths of the sea known as the Abyssal Zone. This is because the sediment at the bottom of the Abyssal zone is generally dragged into the mantle of the Earth, as opposed to rising to the land.

Sedimentary Rocks

As said above, fossils usually form in water because that's where sedimentation occurs. Here are some of the common sedimentary rocks that fossils can be found in:

  • Sandstones/Siltstones: These rocks can usually be found in off-shore deposits or beaches. They commonly preserve water ripples, tracks, petrified wood, dinosaur bones and hard-shelled invertebrates.
  • Conglomerates: Fossilized bones and teeth, as well as amphibian and reptile fossils can be found in conglomerates.
  • Shale: Probably the most common fossil preserving rock, shales can contain fossils that are perfectly preserved. They can contain vertebrates, invertebrates, or plants.
  • Limestones: Also a very fossiliferous rock, they represent both shallow and deep tropical seas. Invertebrate fossils, as well as remains of armored fish and shark teeth can be found in limestones.
  • Coal/Coal Shales: Plants, fish, insects, marine invertebrates, and even dinosaur footprints can be found in coal deposits.

It is noted that we may have to identify sedimentary rock. Here are some tips to identify some:

  • Coquina: As one of my teammates put it, it looks kinda like chewed up oatmeal.
  • Diatomite: It looks similar to chalk limestone, but less chalky.
  • Dolomite Rock: It is usually a very light shade of pink.
  • Sandstone: It is grainy and it does not have to be layered.
  • Limestone Chalk: Looks and feels like chalk.
  • Fossiliferous Limestone: Has fossils that are relatively small. The stone itself does not have to be covered with fossils.

Modes of life

Different animals have different modes of life (these generally refer to oceanic dwellers, which makes up a bulk of the list). Here are some terms you need to know:

  • Pelagic: Free swimming, such as fish or scallops (scallops "swim" by flapping their shells. It's kinda cool).
  • Sessile. Rooted to the floor. Examples include crinoids (sea lilies) and sea anemones.
  • Benthic: Lives on the sea floor, e.g crabs, lobsters, crinoids.
  • Vagrant: Free swimming, same as pelagic.
  • Motile: The opposite of sessile; moves around. Examples include anything that is Pelagic/Vagrant, Benthic, or any other organism able to move around.
  • Coiled: The outsides of an organism coil around a center point.
  • Planktonic: Doesn't actually swim; floats and is carried along with the ocean's currents.

Geologic Time

Earth's history is broken up several ways. The largest section is the supereon, the only one is the Precambrian. After this the next largest are eons There are four; the Hadean Eon (before 3800 mya (million years ago), the Archean Eon (3800-2500MYA), the Proterozoic Eon (2500-542MYA) and the Phanerozoic (540 mya to present). Not much is know about the Precambrian, because all of the life forms lacked hard shells or skeletons, making preservation very unlikely. There are, however, fossils called stromatolites that show indications of cyanobacteria. These are first found in the Archaean. It is possible that the first lifeforms and self replicating RNA strands emerged as early as the mid-Hadean. The Phanerozoic Eon is when shelled invertebrates began to emerge, and the fossil record expands.

Next, it's split into Eras. Eras are divided based on the dominant life forms at that time. The Paleozoic (meaning "ancient animals", from 540 mya to 243 mya) was dominated by marine invertebrates. Reptiles dominated the Mesozoic (middle animals) Era (from 243 mya to 65 mya), and mammals dominate the Cenozoic Era (65 mya to present, meaning "recent animals"). We are living in the Cenozoic Era now.

The next breakdown are periods. Each era is broken down into periods, except for the Archaean and Hadean Eons, which are only divided into eras. Periods are broken down into Epochs starting after the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon. All epochs are then further divided into Ages, which can, though rarely are, divided into Chron. All divisions of time may be distinguished from each other by certain species that lived only in that period, called index fossils, this method is called biogeochronology. These divisions all have counterparts in chronostratigraphy, as Eon/Eonthem, Erathem/Era, System/Period, Series/Epoch, Stage/Age, and Chronozone/Chron. More on that later. First up, we have the periods of the Paleozoic (there are periods before this but they are rarely used):

Geologic Time Scale

  • Cambrian: (540 mya to 505 mya) The first period, this is when marine invertebrates start to emerge.
  • Ordovician: (505 mya to 438 mya) Primitive fish start to form. Index fossil is the trilobite genus Cryptolithus.
  • Silurian:(438mya to 408 mya) Early land animals began to emerge.
  • Devonian: ( 498 mya yo 360 mya) First forests and amphibians form. Index fossils include Mucrospirifer (brachiopod genus) and Phacops (trilobite genus).
  • Carboniferous: Contains both the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian Periods.
    • Mississippian: (360 mya to 320 mya) Widespread shallow seas form.
    • Pennsylvanian: ( 320 mya to 286 mya) Coal bearing rocks form.
  • Permian: ( 286 mya to 245 mya) Earliest gymnosperms (cone bearing trees).

Next come the Mesozoic periods. It was during this time that dinosaurs dominated.

  • Triassic: ( 245 mya to 208 mya) First dinosaurs and earliest mammals.
  • Jurassic: ( 208 mya to 144 mya) Earliest birds.
  • Cretaceous:(144 mya to 65 mya) Flowering plants (angiosperms) develop.

Last are the periods of the Cenozoic. The periods in the Cenozoic differ from the other two eras by being broken down even further in epochs.

  • Tertiary: Apes begin to appear. It is broken down into epochs:
    • Paleocene (65 mya to 58 mya)
    • Eocene: (58 mya to 37 mya) further development of mammals.
    • Oligocene: (37 mya to 24 mya) Rise of true carnivores
    • Miocene: (24 mya to 5 mya) Grasses and grazing animals develop.
    • Pliocene: (5 mya to 2 mya) First modern animals
  • Quaternary: Humans appear and develop. This is the period we are still in today.
    • Pleistocene: (2 mya to 10,000 ya): First humans.
    • Holocene: (10,000 ya to present): The epoch in which we live today. The Holocene is further divided into the Boreal Age, followed by the Atlantic Stage.

And who knows? Maybe another type of animal will dominate us and another era will be born. You never know.

A new system of geologic time was devised early in 2007. It goes like this:

  • Tertiary is broken into the Paleogene and Neogene
    • Paleogene
      • Paleocene
      • Eocene
      • Oligocene
    • Neogene
      • Miocene
      • Pliocene
    • Quaternary
      • Pleistocene
      • Holocene

As you may have noticed, the changes do not apply to the Quaternary, but for the sake of completeness, this period is included under the modification.

Here's a basic overview of each time period, it's a really great chart, very specific, at least specific enough for us.

Another good geologic time chart

It is very good because it compares the length graphically for all divisions of time.

Index Fossils

Index fossils are fossils of organisms that lived only in one period. They developed near the beginning of the period, and became extinct before the end. Note that this refers to genera or species, not entire classes or families. Index fossils are extremely useful for dating rock. They cant be used to tell absolute age (we need carbon-14 (or other isotope) testing for that), but we use them for relative dating. By comparing two rock outcrops with the same index fossil, we can conclude that they are roughly the same age, (give or take several million years, which, in the span of Earth's 4.6 billion year, is not much). To be an index fossil, the organism must have had a wide geographic range, because if a fossil is found only on some barren outcrop in the desert, it can't be used to date rocks from many miles away. It also helps to be fairly common- for instance, dinosaurs of North America are not index fossils because of their rarity.

For example, Genus Mucrospirifer can be an index fossil for the Devonian Period because they only existed during that period. Therefore, if you find a rock with a Mucrospirifer in it, you can guess that the rock is from the Devonian Period.

Fossil Symmetry

Most multicellular organisms display some form of symmetry. We as human beings are bilaterally symmetrical because if you were cut in half from the middle of the front of the head, all the way down the middle, the two sides would look the same...for the most part. The heart, of course, is on the left side, but you get my point.

So basically, fossils often have characteristics that make them symmetrical. There are many types but the main types are:

  • Bilateral Symmetry: Brachiopods are bilaterally symmetrical between each side of each individual valve, and bivalves are bilaterally symmetrical between each valve.
  • Radial Symmetry: In your mind, imagine a sand dollar and put it in a circle - from the center of that circle, all the surrounding parts are symmetrical. All echinodermata exhibit radial symmetry.
  • Pentamerism: A type of radial symmetry, think of a starfish. They generally have five arms and a center point from which all these arms go out. Pentagonal symmetry my friends. ALl echinodermata exhibit this, some in variations.
  • Coiled symmetry: Gastropods exhibit it - their shells are coiled around a center point at the apex.

Relative Dating

Relative dating orders events in chronological order. It tells you which events came first, but it does not tell you the exact date of which it occurred. There are different methods that are used for relative dating. They are the principle of superposition, the principle of original horizontality, the principle of cross-cutting relationships, and the principle of inclusions.

  • Principle of Superposition: If you have undisturbed layers of sedimentary rocks, than the layers will be younger as they near the top. The oldest layers are on the bottom and the tallest layers are on the top.
  • Principle of Original Horizontality: Rocks are originally layered horizontally. If you have layers that are higher on one side than on the other, it is due to the tilting of rocks caused by a geological event.
  • Principle of Cross-Cutting Relationships: This principle states that a fracture or cut in a rock caused by another rock (igneous intrusion) is always younger than the rock it cuts.
  • Principle of Inclusions: Fragments of one rock in another rock must be older than the rock it is contained in.

Absolute Dating

Absolute dating is similar to relative dating in that they both order events in chronological order. However, unlike relative dating, absolute dating can determine the ages of rocks. There are several methods that are used in absolute dating, including radiometric dating, half-life, and carbon dating.

  • Half-life: The half-life of an isotope is how much time it takes for half the atoms in that isotope to decay. After that many years, half the atoms in the isotope will decay. After that many years again, half of that half (one quarter of the whole or two half-lives) will decay. After that many years again, half of the half of that half (one eighth of the whole or three half-lives) will decay. It will go on until the isotope decays to its daughter product.
  • Major radioactive isotopes and their half-life:
  - Carbon 14         5730 years
  - Potassium 40      1.25 Ga years
  - Uranium 235       703.8 Ma
  - Uranium 238       4.468 Ga
  - Thorium 232       14.05 Ga
  - Rubidium 87       48.8 Ga
  - Samarium 147      106 Ga
  • Radiometric Dating: As time goes on, the amount of parent material in a rock decreases as the amount of daughter product in the rock increases. Geologists can determine the age of rocks by measuring the amount of parent and daughter material in the rock and knowing the half-life of the parent rock.


x=number of decays



Competition Tips

Making a Binder

The majority of your binder should consist of pages on each taxa (genus/order/class/phylum)on the National Sci Oly Fossil sheet.

Now, what do you need on each page?

For Genus-Level Taxa

  • Fossil Range
  • Taxonomy
  • Mode of Life/Diet/Habitat/Distribution)
  • Anatomical features, size
  • Nicknames, common names
  • A picture (or many if there are various forms of the specimen)
  • Any other important/trivial info that should go under a misc. section (pop culture, etc)

For Orders/Classes

  • The common anatomical features throughout the group
  • Distinctive features of the said group
  • Adaptations over time
  • The fossil range of the group
  • General habitats and common modes of life
  • Common names/ Nicknames for group
  • Misc. info

For Phyla

  • Now you're getting into a broad range of info and less distinctive features
  • There are generally a few main features are shared in these large groups
  • Adaptations over time
  • Nicknames/Common names (Like Bryozoans are called Sea mats/Moss animals)
  • Misc. info

Now keep in mind, these pages should not be used for identification. If you are dedicated to this event, you should be absolutely certain of all ID questions. Only use these pages for time ranges if you forgot or any other info on morphology/adaptations that you can't think of off the top of your head.

Binders can be chock full of whatever you put into it. A great binder outweighs any guide, and knowing where every single piece of information lies is a wonderful asset. Tabbing makes it easy to find what you are looking for. It is especially helpful to make a binder or adapt an old one, because that's when you inadvertently memorize information.

Choosing a Guide

There are 3 main fossil guides used for this event, They are Simon and Schuster's Guide to Fossils, National Audubon Guide To North American Fossils, and Eyewitness Handbook: Fossils (also called Smithsonian Guide to Fossils).

1) Audubon: It has almost all invertebrates on the list, which automatically puts it first. However, it is a bit bulky for these purposes, and rather harder to find the specimens in. It has very good info, has everything you need when it comes to ID.

2) Smithsonian: Very straight forward, not very bulky, but the only thing wrong is that it doesn't have all the specimens on the list. "The fossils rules recommended you use it and so do I," says GGuy5.

3) Simon and Schuster's: It doesn't have many of the samples, but what is does have is great because it's the only guide of the three that has information on dinosaurs. Good info but it's organized awkwardly and is VERY hit and miss on the fossils (more miss then hit).

The bottom line? The best choice as a field guide would be either Smithsonian or Audubon. Smithsonian is better organized and has better pictures, but Audubon has better info, so either would be great. Simon and Schusters, although it has info on dinosaurs, it is not very dependable, so you probably should not use it as your field guide.

Remember: You can use all three books for studying, taking notes, and, most importantly, preparing your binder.

Day of the Event

If you are bringing a binder, make sure that everything is hole punched and organized. It is also okay to have them in sheet protectors. This includes all your notes, the list, pictures, diagrams, etc. If you have papers stuffed into the side folders or just placed in, the proctors will remove them and you will not be able to use them. Make sure you bring plenty of pencils and pens, erasers, a magnifying glass as they might have live specimens.


How should I prepare for this event?

Create a binder with pages for each fossil, and all the information suggested. You can practice your ID skills in the Fossil ID game under the Posting Games section of the forum. You can also take the practice tests on the Test Exchange, also located in the Wiki, or try out the quizzing. Put tabs in your field guide for each of the phyla, highlight specimens in the index, mark the fossil info, and add some notes into your field guide.

What can I bring to this event?

A published fossil field guide, a magnifying glass, and a 3-ring binder with your notes.

What should I put in my binder?

Information on all the genera, for sure. Also include anything necessary listed on the rule page. Know things like extinction events or geologic time. But don't just copy and paste or print pages off of Wikipedia- typing out information yourself helps you learn it, which is a huge advantage. Try creating a template for the genera, so you can just fill in the blanks of your template. Remember to tab your binder and organize it so that it is easier to find your information, as there is not much time to flip through your binder during the competition. Spend a lot of time with your binder- if you do it right, it will be more valuable than your field guide. To help you get familiar with your binder, take a practice test using it. This also works for your field guide.

Side Note: Putting pages in page protectors makes it easier to flip through fast, and pages are less likely to rip.

Remember: All pages must be hole punched.

How long should my binder be?

As long as you need it to be. Don't have it be huge to the extent that you can't find everything. A three-inch binder is definitely excessive. But be sure that you have everything you might need for competition. And by the time you spent all that time building the binder, you will have learned a lot and won't need it as much. Also, be sure you can find everything, so you don't spend half the time searching through your binder.

What is this event like?

Typically, the event is run in stations, with a set time limit (generally from 1 to 3 minutes). Most tests generally involve IDing a fossil, and answering questions about it, such as the taxonomy, time period(s), and mode of life. Some involve pictures of a life form or a picture of something else (like sediment). However, every test is different (as in every study event), so you might be surprised. There may not be much time, but remember: it's not just you with that relatively short time; it's everyone, so just keep calm, don't rush, and don't waste your time.

Sample Questions

Resized mucrospirifer.PNG

1. Identify the phylum, genus, and whether it is articulate or inarticulate

2. What time period was this fossil most prominent in?


1. What is the specimen shown above?

2. How are specimens like this one used by palaeontologists?


Palaeos This has vast quantities on information on several taxa.
Wikipedia The standard resource for all SciOly events, though cross-check dates and taxonomic keys with a field guide.
PaleoDB This has a large amount of information on taxonomy of each specimen.
AZMNH This has a lot of useless stuff, but some good information, such as the Latin word roots common to dinosaurs.
Fossil Museum Has a big list of fossils and lots of info.
Paleontology Portal Has a lot of great pictures!
Fossil Wiki Yet another wonderful wiki.
Index Fossils A chart of index fossils included in many tests.
USDA.gov Has accurate information on the taxonomy of plants