Fossils can include ancient remains, actual bodies of ancient life, frozen in glaciers or polar permafrost. They can also be mummified remains found in caves and salt beds. They can be preserved inside bits of amber or sealed within dense beds of clay. These are all the "ideal fossils" but they are also rare.
Body fossils, mineralized organisms, are the best-known kind of fossils. These include dinosaur bones and petrified wood. Body fossils can be found in many places all over Earth but are still considered fairly rare. Tracts, nests, burrows, etc. are another kind of fossil and these are called trace fossils or ichnofossils. Although exceptionally rare, these trace fossils are very important because they give scientists a look into an organism's behavior.
Chemofossils, or chemical fossils, are remains that consist of simple organic compounds or proteins found in a body of rock. Did you know that petroleum and coal, the fossil fuels, are very large and widespread examples of chemical fossils? These types of fossils are important to scientific research because they help show how these organisms evolved. As an example, the waxy coating on modern-day leaves has been detected in ancient rock.
Have you ever wondered what exactly becomes fossils? The answer is simple: anything that can become buried can become a fossil since fossil means "to dig up." But, as you know, very little that gets buried last very long. Most things that end up getting buried get broken down, decomposed, and recycled back into the earth. In order to escape this natural recycling, whatever has been buried must be taken away from all oxygen soon after its demise. Soon, in the world of geology, can mean many years. That makes sense, then, why it's bones, shells, and wood that turn into fossils the great majority of the time. But even these hard elements need "exceptional circumstances to be preserved, " says Andrew Alden. Despite all the odds, there have been some amazing fossils discovered. These are things I gravitate to whenever I visit science museums. It's like taking a quick trip back millions of years. There are only a handful of places on Earth that are gentle enough to preserve these things in abundance. They are called lagerstätten. This is a sedimentary rock deposit where fossils are found with exceptional preservation.
Once something is buried, the organic remains enter a long and complex process by which they become fossilized. The study of this process is called taphonomy. Some fossils are preserved as films of carbon under the heat and pressure of being buried deep. many fossils, like shells in young rocks, undergo re-crystallization while underground. Still, in other cases, the substance is dissolved leaving a mold that is then filled with minerals from their surroundings or from underground fluids. And true petrification happens when the fossils original substance is gently and completely replaced with another mineral. It can look lifelike or, if replaced by opal or agate, it will be spectacular!
Even after a fossil has been discovered, they can be difficult to retrieve from the ground. Natural processes, most likely heat and pressure, can destroy them. Fracturing and folding of the sedimentary rock that holds fossils can wipe out many of these specimens. They can also disappear as their host rock becomes exposed to the elements over time. Experts tell us that beyond the good fortune of finding a fossil at the right stage, it takes great practice to remain it without causing it irreparable harm. The rarity of finding large, complete specimens, like Tyrannosaurus rex, makes it front-page news. It takes time, patience, and great skill to unwrap fossils, but the end result is oh-so-worthwhile!
I hope you've enjoyed learning a little bit about fossils today. The next time you have the opportunity, visit your local science museum and take a look at the fossils. I think you'll find some pretty amazing things. In Lily Pad, we have a wonderful science museum with some pretty awesome dinosaur tracts and, as you might expect, a fair number of frog fossils. This is one of Little Quigley's favorite places to visit. And I can't say as I blame him. I really enjoy it, too. Perhaps it's time for another visit soon.