fossil


fossil
fossillike, adj.
/fos"euhl/, n.
1. any remains, impression, or trace of a living thing of a former geologic age, as a skeleton, footprint, etc.
2. a markedly outdated or old-fashioned person or thing.
3. a linguistic form that is archaic except in certain restricted contexts, as nonce in for the nonce, or that follows a rule or pattern that is no longer productive, as the sentence So be it.
adj.
4. of the nature of a fossil: fossil insects.
5. belonging to a past epoch or discarded system; antiquated: a fossil approach to economics.
[1555-65; < L fossilis dug up (Cf. fodere to dig); r. earlier fossile < F]

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I
Remnant, impression, or trace of an animal or plant of a past geologic age that has been preserved in the Earth's crust.

The data recorded in fossils, known as the fossil record, constitute the primary source of information about the history of life on the Earth. Only a small fraction of ancient organisms are preserved as fossils, and usually only organisms that have a solid skeleton or shell. A shell or bone that is buried quickly after deposition may retain organic tissue, though it becomes petrified (converted to a stony substance) over time. Unaltered hard parts, such as the shells of clams, are relatively common in sedimentary rocks. The soft parts of animals or plants are rarely preserved. The embedding of insects in amber and the preservation of mammoths in ice are rare but striking examples of the fossil preservation of soft tissues. Traces of organisms may also occur as tracks, trails, or even borings.
II
(as used in expressions)

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 remnant, impression, or trace of an animal or plant of a past geologic age that has been preserved in the Earth's crust. The complex of data recorded in fossils worldwide, known as the fossil record, is the primary source of information about the history of life on Earth.

 Only a small fraction of ancient organisms are preserved as fossils, and usually only organisms that have a solid and resistant skeleton are readily preserved. Most major groups of invertebrate animals have a calcareous skeleton or shell (e.g., corals, mollusks, brachiopods, bryozoans). Other forms have shells of calcium phosphate (which also occurs in the bones of vertebrates), or silicon dioxide. A shell or bone that is buried quickly after deposition may retain these organic tissues, though they become petrified (converted to a stony substance) over time. Unaltered hard parts, such as the shells of clams or brachiopods, are relatively common in sedimentary rocks, some of great age.

      The hard parts of organisms that become buried in sediment may be subject to a variety of other changes during their conversion to solid rock, however. Solutions may fill the interstices, or pores, of the shell or bone with calcium carbonate or other mineral salts and thus fossilize the remains, in a process known as permineralization. In other cases there may be a total replacement of the original skeletal material by other mineral matter, a process known as mineralization, or replacement. In still other cases, circulating acid solutions may dissolve the original shell but leave a cavity corresponding to it, and circulating calcareous or siliceous solutions may then deposit a new matrix in the cavity, thus creating a new impression of the original shell.

      By contrast, the soft parts of animals or plants are very rarely preserved. The embedding of insects in amber and the preservation of the carcasses of Pleistocene-era mammoths in ice are rare but striking examples of the fossil preservation of soft tissues. Traces of organisms may also occur as tracks or trails or even borings.

      The great majority of fossils are preserved in a water environment because land remains are more easily destroyed. Anaerobic conditions at the bottom of the seas or other bodies of water are especially favourable for preserving fine details, since no bottom faunas, except for anaerobic bacteria, are present to destroy the remains. In general, for an organism to be preserved two conditions must be met: rapid burial to retard decomposition and to prevent the ravaging of scavengers; and possession of hard parts capable of being fossilized.

      In some places, such as the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, one can observe a great thickness of nearly horizontal strata representing the deposition of sediment on the seafloor over many hundreds of millions of years. It is often apparent that each layer in such a sequence contains fossils that are distinct from those of the layers that are above and below it. In such sequences of layers in different geographic locations, the same, or similar, fossil floras or faunas occur in the identical order. By comparing overlapping sequences, it is possible to build up a continuous record of faunas and floras that have progressively more in common with present-day life forms as the top of the sequence is approached.

 The study of the fossil record has provided important information for at least four different purposes. The progressive changes observed within an animal group are used to describe the evolution of that group. Fossils also provide the geologist a quick and easy way of assigning a relative age to the strata in which they occur. The precision with which this may be done in any particular case depends on the nature and abundance of the fauna: some fossil groups were deposited during much longer time intervals than others. Fossils used to identify geologic relationships are known as index fossils (index fossil).

      Fossil organisms may provide information about the climate and environment of the site where they were deposited and preserved (e.g., certain species of coral require warm, shallow water, or certain forms of deciduous angiosperms can only grow in colder climatic conditions).

      Finally, fossils are useful in the exploration for minerals and mineral fuels. For example, they serve to indicate the stratigraphic position of coal seams. In recent years, geologists have been able to study the subsurface stratigraphy of oil and natural gas deposits by analyzing microfossils obtained from core samples of deep borings.

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Universalium. 2010.

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