Study: How placentas evolved in mammals

The fossil record tells us about ancient life through the preserved remains of body parts like bones, teeth and turtle shells. But how to study the history of soft tissues and organs, which can decay quickly, leaving little ...

Which rules evolutionary change: Life or climate?

The fossil record over the last half a billion years shows biodiversity as a zigzagging pattern of species births and extinctions. For decades scientist have attempted to answer the question: Which rules supreme—life or ...

Clouds played an important role in the history of climate

Were Earth's oceans completely covered by ice during the Cryogenian period, about 700 million years ago, or was there an ice-free belt of open water around the equator where sponges and other forms of life could survive? ...

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Fossils (from Latin fossus, literally "having been dug up") are the preserved remains or traces of animals, plants, and other organisms from the remote past. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossiliferous (fossil-containing) rock formations and sedimentary layers (strata) is known as the fossil record. The study of fossils across geological time, how they were formed, and the evolutionary relationships between taxa (phylogeny) are some of the most important functions of the science of paleontology. Such a preserved specimen is called a "fossil" if it is older than some minimum age, most often the arbitrary date of 10,000 years ago. Hence, fossils range in age from the youngest at the start of the Holocene Epoch to the oldest from the Archaean Eon several billion years old. The observations that certain fossils were associated with certain rock strata led early geologists to recognize a geological timescale in the 19th century. The development of radiometric dating techniques in the early 20th century allowed geologists to determine the numerical or "absolute" age of the various strata and thereby the included fossils.

Like extant organisms, fossils vary in size from microscopic, such as single bacterial cells only one micrometer in diameter, to gigantic, such as dinosaurs and trees many meters long and weighing many tons. A fossil normally preserves only a portion of the deceased organism, usually that portion that was partially mineralized during life, such as the bones and teeth of vertebrates, or the chitinous exoskeletons of invertebrates. Preservation of soft tissues is rare in the fossil record. Fossils may also consist of the marks left behind by the organism while it was alive, such as the footprint or feces (coprolites) of a reptile. These types of fossil are called trace fossils (or ichnofossils), as opposed to body fossils. Finally, past life leaves some markers that cannot be seen but can be detected in the form of biochemical signals; these are known as chemofossils or biomarkers.

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