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Fossil record

From Academic Kids

Ever since recorded history began, and probably before, people have found pieces of rock and other hard material with indentations from the remains of dead organisms. These are called fossils, and the totality of these artifacts and their placement in rock formations is referred to as the fossil record.

The fossil record is one of the primary sources of data relevant to the study of evolution. Scientists examine fossils in order to understand the process of evolution and the way particular species have evolved.

William Smith (1769-1839), an English canal engineer, observed that rocks of different ages (based on the law of superposition) preserved different assemblages of fossils, and that these assemblages succeeded one another in a regular and determinable order. He observed that rocks from distant locations could be correlated based on the fossils they contained. He termed this the principle of faunal succession.

Smith, who preceded Charles Darwin, was unaware of biological evolution and did not know why faunal succession occurred. Biological evolution explains why faunal succession exists: as different organisms evolve, change and go extinct, they leave behind fossils. Faunal succession was one of the chief pieces of evidence cited by Darwin that biological evolution had occurred.

The fossil record and faunal succession form the basis of the science of biostratigraphy or determining the age of rocks based on the fossils they contain. For the first 150 years of geology, biostratigraphy and superposition were the only means for determining the relative age of rocks.

Some observers are perplexed by the rarity of transitional species. The conventional explanation for this rarity was given by Darwin, who stated that "the extreme imperfection of the geological record," combined with the short duration and narrow geographical range of transitional species, made it unlikely that many such fossils would be found. Stephen J. Gould developed his theory of punctuated equilibrium in part to explain the pattern of stasis and sudden appearance in the fossil record.

Since the latter half of the twentieth century, absolute dating methods, such as radiometric dating (including potassium/argon, argon/argon, uranium series, and carbon-14 dating which works only for the very recent past, the last 50,000 years before the present), show that the earliest known fossils are over 3.5 billion years old. Various dating methods have been used and are used today depending on local geology and context, and while there is some variance in the results from these dating methods, nearly all of them provide evidence for a very old Earth, approximately 4.6 billion years. (See geologic time scale).

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