USGS: Science for
a Changing World

FOSSIL SUCCESSION

Three concepts are important in the study and use of fossils: (1) Fossils represent the remains of once-living organisms. (2) Most fossils are the remains of extinct organisms; that is, they belong to species that are no longer living anywhere on Earth. (3) The kinds of fossils found in rocks of different ages differ because life on Earth has changed through time.

Diagram showing stratigraphic ranges 
and origins of some major animal and plant groups
Stratigraphic ranges and origins of some major groups of animals and plants.

If we begin at the present and examine older and older layers of rock, we will come to a level where no fossils of humans are present. If we continue backwards in time, we will successively come to levels where no fossils of flowering plants are present, no birds, no mammals, no reptiles, no four-footed vertebrates, no land plants, no fishes, no shells, and no animals. The three concepts are summarized in the general principle called the Law of Fossil Succession: The kinds of animals and plants found as fossils change through time. When we find the same kinds of fossils in rocks from different places, we know that the rocks are the same age.

Photograph of fossil 
Archaeopteryx lithographica Scientists look for ancestors and descendants through geologic time. The fossil Archaeopteryx lithographica was a Jurassic animal with the skeleton of a reptile, including fingers with claws on the wings (solid arrows), backbone extending into the tail (open arrow), and teeth, but it was covered with feathers. We can see fossils of many other reptiles in rock of the same age and even older, but Archaeopteryx lithographica is the oldest known fossil to have feathers. We conclude that this animal is a link between reptiles and birds and that birds are descended from reptiles. The specimen is about 45 centimeters long. Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

How do scientists explain the changes in life forms, which are obvious in the record of fossils in rocks? Early explanations were built around the idea of successive natural disasters or catastrophes that periodically destroyed life. After each catastrophe, life began anew. In the mid-nineteenth century, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace proposed that older species of life give rise to younger ones. According to Darwin, this change or evolution is caused by four processes: variation, over-reproduction, competition, and survival of those best adapted to the environment in which they live. Darwin's theory accounts for all of the diversity of life, both living and fossil. His explanation gave scientific meaning to the observed succession of once-living species seen as fossils in the record of Earth's history preserved in the rocks.

Scientific theories are continually being corrected and improved, because theory must always account for known facts and observations. Therefore, as new knowledge is gained, a theory may change. Application of theory allows us to develop new plants that resist disease, to transplant kidneys, to find oil, and to establish the age of our Earth. Darwin's theory of evolution has been refined and modified continuously as new information has accumulated. All of the new information has supported Darwin's basic concept--that living beings have changed through time and older species are ancestors of younger ones.


Diagram showing fossil clams 
of the same species A species is the most basic unit of classification for living things. This group of fossil clams shows likely ancestor-descendant relationships at the species level. These fossils from the Mid-Atlantic States show the way species can change through time. Notice how the shape of the posterior (rear) end of these clams becomes more rounded in the younger species, and the area where the two shells are held together (ligamental cavity) gets larger. Paleontologists pay particular attention to the shape of the shells and the details of the anatomy preserved as markings on the shells.

Numbers in the left-hand column refer to the following geologic time segments: 1, Pliocene; 2, Miocene; 3, Oligocene; 4, Eocene; 5, Paleocene; 6, Late Cretaceous.

Figure courtesy of G. Lynn Wingard.





The Law of Fossil Succession is very important to geologists who need to know the ages of the rocks they are studying. The fossils present in a rock exposure or in a core hole can be used to determine the ages of rocks very precisely. Detailed studies of many rocks from many places reveal that some fossils have a short, well-known time of existence. These useful fossils are called index fossils.

Today the animals and plants that live in the ocean are very different from those that live on land, and the animals and plants that live in one part of the ocean or on one part of the land are very different from those in other parts. Similarly, fossil animals and plants from different environments are different. It becomes a challenge to recognize rocks of the same age when one rock was deposited on land and another was deposited in the deep ocean. Scientists must study the fossils from a variety of environments to build a complete picture of the animals and plants that were living at a particular time in the past.

The study of fossils and the rocks that contain them occurs both out of doors and in the laboratory. The field work can take place anywhere in the world. In the laboratory, rock saws, dental drills, pneumatic chisels, inorganic and organic acids, and other mechanical and chemical procedures may be used to prepare samples for study. Preparation may take days, weeks, or months--large dinosaurs may take years to prepare. Once the fossils are freed from the rock, they can be studied and interpreted. In addition, the rock itself provides much useful information about the environment in which it and the fossils were formed.


Diagram showing how to use fossils to 
recognize rocks of the same or different ages Fossils can be used to recognize rocks of the same or different ages. The fossils in this figure are the remains of microscopic algae. The pictures shown were made with a scanning electron microscope and have been magnified about 250 times. In South Carolina, three species are found in a core of rock. In Virginia, only two of the species are found. We know from the species that do occur that the rock record from the early part of the middle Eocene is missing in Virginia. We also use these species to recognize rocks of the same ages (early Eocene and latter part of the middle Eocene) in both South Carolina and Virginia. The study of layered rocks and the fossils they contain is called biostratigraphy; the prefix bio is Greek and means life.





This page is URL: http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/fossils/succession.html
Last updated 14 August 1997 (krw)
Maintained by John Watson