17 August, 2008

Question: What is a fossil? Are there different types of fossils? How do I know if I've found a fossil?

Answer: Fossils are the remains, moulds or traces of organisms that died a long time ago and were preserved in (usually) sedimentary rocks such as sandstones, siltstones, shales or limestones. The word fossil comes from the Latin fossilis meaning 'dug up'.

Fossils can be roughly divided into two main categories:

Body fossils refer to the fossilisation of an actual biological component of an organism. Body fossils include fossilised teeth, bones, claws, skin and embryos, as well as the fossilised parts of plants.

The Cape Paterson Claw

The Cape Paterson Claw. This body fossil - the first dinosaur bone ever discovered in Australia - is the claw of a carnivorous theropod.
Photographer: John Broomfield / Source: Museum Victoria

Trace fossils are fossilised evidence of an organism’s movement or activity. Fossilised footprints, burrows, teeth marks, faeces and nests are all trace fossils.

A Coprolite (dinosaur dung)

This fossilised dinosaur dung from the Phanerozoic era is a trace fossil.
Source: Museum Victoria

Fossils are one of the most important sources of information about the Earth's past. They can tell us the age of the rocks in which they are found, what the environment was like when the fossilised organisms were alive, and even how the organisms functioned. Fossils can also tell us about Earth movements, the former positions of continents (ancient geography), and the evolution of life on Earth. The scientific study of fossils is called Palaeontology.

There are all sorts of things you can do to learn more about fossils: visiting the Melbourne Museum would be a great start. You could also go on a fossil collecting expedition or join a fossil collecting group.

Museum Victoria has a free identification service. If you have found an object you believe is a fossil you are welcome to bring it to the Melbourne Museum Discovery Centre to have it identified by Museum Palaeontologists. The Discovery Centre is open between 10am and 4:30pm seven days a week. Entry is free.

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