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09.04: Fossils and Evolution

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    Image of the Archaeopteryx fossil that show features of both reptiles and birds. This is a famous transition fossil between reptiles and birds.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Archaeopteryx lithographica, specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.

    Fossils are any evidence of past life preserved in rocks. They may be actual remains of body parts (rare), impressions of soft body parts, casts and molds of body parts (more common), body parts replaced by mineral (common) or evidence of animal behavior such as footprints and burrows. The body parts of living organisms range from the hard bones and shells of animals, soft cellulose of plants, soft bodies of jellyfish, down to single cells of bacteria and algae. Which body parts can be preserved? The vast majority of life today consists of soft-bodied and/or single-celled organisms, and will not likely be preserved in the geologic record except under unusual conditions. The best environment for preservation is the ocean, yet marine processes can dissolve hard parts and scavenging can reduce or eliminate remains. Thus, even under ideal conditions in the ocean, the likelihood of preservation is quite limited. For terrestrial life, the possibility of remains being buried and preserved is even more limited. In other words, the fossil record is incomplete and records only a small percentage of life that existed. Although incomplete, fossil records are used for stratigraphic correlation, using the Principle of Faunal Succession, and provide a method used for establishing the age of a formation on the Geologic Time Scale.

    Types of Preservation

    Image of three lobes of an external skeleton like an insect has today. via Wikimedia Commons" width="204px" height="252px" src="/@api/deki/files/7565/ElrathiakingiUtahWheelerCambrian-243x300.jpg">
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Trilobites had a hard exoskeleton and are often preserved by permineralization.

    Remnants or impressions of hard parts, such as a marine clamshell or dinosaur bone, are the most common types of fossils [24]. The original material has almost always been replaced with new minerals that preserve much of the shape of the original shell, bone, or cell. The common types of fossil preservation are actual preservation, permineralization, molds and casts, carbonization, and trace fossils.

    Actual preservation is a rare form of fossilization where the original materials or hard parts of the organism are preserved. Preservation of soft-tissue is very rare since these organic materials easily disappear because of bacterial decay [24]. Examples of actual preservation are unaltered biological materials like insects in amber or original minerals like mother-of-pearl on the interior of a shell. Another example is mammoth skin and hair preserved in post-glacial deposits in the Arctic regions [25]. Rare mummification [26] have left fragments of soft tissue, skin, and sometimes even blood vessels of dinosaurs, from which proteins have been isolated and evidence for DNA fragments have been discovered [27].

    Mosquito trapped in amber in actal preservationvia Wikimedia Commons" width="388px" height="266px" src="/@api/deki/files/7566/07.19_mosquito_in_amber-300x206.jpg">
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mosquito preserved in amber
    Photo of log of petrified wood showing structures of the original woodCC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons" width="250px" height="250px" src="/@api/deki/files/7567/07.20_Petrified_forest_log_2_md-300x300.jpg">
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Permineralization in petrified wood

    Permineralization occurs when an organism is buried, and then elements in groundwater completely impregnate all spaces within the body, even cells. Soft body structures can be preserved in great detail, but stronger materials like bone and teeth are the most likely to be preserved. Petrified wood is an example of detailed cellulose structures in the wood being preserved. The University of California Berkeley website has more information on permineralization.

    Molds and casts form when the original material of the organism dissolves and leaves a cavity in the surrounding rock. The shape of this cavity is an external mold. If the mold is subsequently filled with sediments or a mineral precipitate, the organism’s external shape is preserved as a cast. Sometimes internal cavities of organisms, such internal casts of clams, snails, and even skulls are preserved as internal casts showing details of soft structures. If the chemistry is right, and burial is rapid, mineral nodules form around soft structures preserving the three-dimensional detail. This is called authigenic mineralization.

    Photo of external mold of a clam shell
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): External mold of a clam
    carbonized leaf fossil showing insect damage and vein structurevia Wikimedia Commons" width="308px" height="221px" src="/@api/deki/files/7568/07.23_carbonization_of_ViburnumFossil-300x215.jpg">
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Carbonized leaf

    Carbonization occurs when the organic tissues of an organism are compressed, the volatiles are driven out, and everything but the carbon disappears leaving a carbon silhouette of the original organism. Leaf and fern fossils are examples of carbonization [28].

    Trace fossils are indirect evidence left behind by an organism, such as burrows and footprints, as it lived its life. Ichnology is specifically the study of prehistoric animal tracks. Dinosaur tracks testify to their presence and movement over an area and even provide information about their size, gait, speed, and behavior [29; 30]. Burrows dug by tunneling organisms tell of their presence and mode of life [31; 32; 33]. Other trace fossils include fossilized feces called coprolites [34] and stomach stones called gastroliths [35] that provide information about diet and habitat.

    Tracks of an ancient 5-toed animalBallista at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons" width="218px" height="346px" src="/@api/deki/files/7569/07.24_Cheirotherium_prints_possibly_Ticinosuchus-189x300.jpg">
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Footprints of the early crocodile Chirotherium
    fossilized animal droppings
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Fossil animal droppings (coprolite)


    Evolution has created a variety of ancient fossils that are important to stratigraphic correlation. (see chapter 7 and Chapter 5) This section is a brief discussion of the process of evolution. The British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) recognized that life forms evolve into progeny life forms. He proposed natural selection—which operated on organisms living under environmental conditions that posed challenges to survival—was the mechanism driving the process of evolution forward.

    Berll-shaped curve showing how variation within a population is distributed with respect to characteristics. Most members group in the center with rarer members on the tails.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Variation within a population

    The basic classification unit of life is the species: a population of organisms that exhibit shared characteristics and are capable of reproducing fertile offspring. For a species to survive, each individual within a particular population is faced with challenges posed by the environment and must survive them long enough to reproduce. Within the natural variations present in the population, there may be individuals possessing characteristics that give them some advantage in facing environmental challenges. These individuals are more likely to reproduce and pass these favored characteristics on to successive generations. If sufficient individuals in a population fail to surmount the challenges of the environment and the population cannot produce enough viable offspring, the species becomes extinct. The average lifespan of a species in the fossil record is around a million years. That life still exists on Earth shows the role and importance of evolution as a natural process in meeting the continual challenges posed by our dynamic Earth. If the inheritance of certain distinctive characteristics is sufficiently favored over time, populations may become genetically isolated from one another, eventually resulting in the evolution of separate species. This genetic isolation may also be caused by a geographic barrier, such as an island surrounded by ocean. This theory of evolution by natural selection was elaborated by Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species (see Chapter 1) [36]. Since Darwin’s original ideas, technology has provided many tools and mechanisms to study how evolution and speciation take place and this arsenal of tools is growing. Evolution is well beyond the hypothesis stage and is a well-established theory of modern science.

    Variation within populations occurs by the natural mixing of genes through sexual reproduction or from naturally occurring mutations. Some of this genetic variation can introduce advantageous characteristics that increase the individual’s chances of survival. While some species in the fossil record show little morphological change over time, others show gradual or punctuated changes, within which intermediate forms can be seen.


    24. Allison, P. A. & Briggs, D. E. G. Exceptional fossil record: Distribution of soft-tissue preservation through the Phanerozoic. Geology 21, 527–530 (1993).

    25. Dale Guthrie, R. Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe. (pu3430623_3430810, 1989).

    26. Manning, P. Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science. (National Geographic, 2009).

    27. Schweitzer, M. H., Wittmeyer, J. L., Horner, J. R. & Toporski, J. K. Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science 307, 1952–1955 (2005).

    28. Erickson, J., Coates, D. R. & Erickson, H. P. An introduction to fossils and minerals: seeking clues to the Earth’s past. (Facts On File, Incorporated, 2014).

    29. James O Farlow, R.E. Chapman, B Breithaupt & N Matthews. The Scientific Study of Dinosaur Footprints. in The Complete Dinosaur (2012).

    30. Martin Lockley. Tracking dinosaurs: a new look at an ancient world. (1991).

    31. Pemberton, S. G. & Frey, R. W. Trace Fossil Nomenclature and the Planolites-Palaeophycus Dilemma. J. Paleontol. 56, 843–881 (1982).

    32. Palaeobiology II. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).

    33. Biogenic structures: Their use in interpreting depositional environments. (Sepm Society for Sedimentary, 1985).

    34. Karen Chin. What did Dinosaurs Eat? Coprolites and other direct evidence of Dinosaur diets. in The Complete Dinosaur (2012).

    35. Wm. Lee Stokes. Dinosaur gastroliths revisited. J. Paleontol. 61, 1242–1246 (1987).

    36. Darwin, C. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. (J. Murray, 1859).

    This page titled 09.04: Fossils and Evolution is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Chris Johnson, Matthew D. Affolter, Paul Inkenbrandt, & Cam Mosher (OpenGeology) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.