USGS: Science for
a Changing World

FOSSILS AND ROCKS

To tell the age of most layered rocks, scientists study the fossils these rocks contain. Fossils provide important evidence to help determine what happened in Earth history and when it happened.

The word fossil makes many people think of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are now featured in books, movies, and television programs, and the bones of some large dinosaurs are on display in many museums. These reptiles were dominant animals on Earth for well over 100 million years from the Late Triassic through the Late Cretaceous. Many dinosaurs were quite small, but by the middle of the Mesozoic Period, some species weighed as much as 80 tons. By around 65 million years ago all dinosaurs were extinct. The reasons for and the rapidity of their extinction are a matter of intense debate among scientists.

Editor's note: Many paleontologists consider birds to be surviving members of the theropod dinosaur lineage. Thus, it is correct to say "non-avian dinosaurs" here, rather than "dinosaurs." More information is available at http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/dinosaur.html. March 25, 2010

Photograph showing 
scientist collecting samples from the bottom of the Mississippi Sound
Collecting samples from the bottom of the Mississippi Sound to look for the kinds of microorganisms that are preserved as fossils. The metal box is lowered overboard, scoops up bottom sediments, and then is raised onto the ship by a winch and pulleys.
In spite of all of the interest in dinosaurs, they form only a small fraction of the millions of species that live and have lived on Earth. The great bulk of the fossil record is dominated by fossils of animals with shells and microscopic remains of plants and animals, and these remains are widespread in sedimentary rocks. It is these fossils that are studied by most paleontologists.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English geologist and engineer William Smith and the French paleontologists Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart discovered that rocks of the same age may contain the same fossils even when the rocks are separated by long distances. They published the first geologic maps of large areas on which rocks containing similar fossils were shown. By careful observation of the rocks and their fossils, these men and other geologists were able to recognize rocks of the same age on opposite sides of the English Channel.

William Smith was able to apply his knowledge of fossils in a very practical way. He was an engineer building canals in England, which has lots of vegetation and few surface exposures of rock. He needed to know what rocks he could expect to find on the hills through which he had to build a canal. Often he could tell what kind of rock was likely to be below the surface by examining the fossils that had eroded from the rocks of the hillside or by digging a small hole to find fossils. Knowing what rocks to expect allowed Smith to estimate costs and determine what tools were needed for the job.

Smith and others knew that the succession of life forms preserved as fossils is useful for understanding how and when the rocks formed. Only later did scientists develop a theory to explain that succession.






This page is URL: http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/fossils/fossils-rocks.html
Last updated 5 April 2010 (jmw)
Maintained by John Watson