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Teacher Resources


What is a Fossil?

    A fossil is defined as the naturally preserved evidence of past life.  The evidence can be direct, in other words, parts of the plant or animal, or indirect, for example a footprint or burrow.  The term “past” is imprecise; most paleontologists (the discipline of geology that studies fossils) consider this to be older than the Holocene Period, or older than 10,000 years.  The naturally preserved part of the definition means that the processes of human activity, such as burial or mummification, do not produce fossils.  There are two categories of fossils,  body fossils, or fossils of all or part of an organism's body, and trace fossils, evidence of an organism's existence and behavior. 
    The examination of both categories of fossils naturally brings about questions on preservation, many of which can be utilized in inquiry based exercises in the classroom setting.  Some of these questions may include: (1) what part or parts of the organism are most likely to be preserved?  (2) by which means will the organism be preserved? and, (3) to what extent can we hypothesize about the behavior and ecological preferences of the organism?
     Professor Connie Soja has published an article in the Journal of Geologic Education on the study of Taphonomy (the study of the burial and preservation of fossils) in the classroom (link below).  This publication outlines a laboratory exercise where students bury several types of easily acquired food items (for example, fish, clam shells,  mushrooms, ect) into the ground, and then exhuming them several weeks later to examine the condition of their preservation.  The study of Taphonomy is a useful tool when discussing the processes involved with preserving organisms, and the limits of the fossil record.  
To examine the two categories of fossilization in more detail click here (  

To download Connie Sojas article click here                                 (JGE-ExperTaphonMs.pdf)            

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Last modified October 02 2008 02:51 PM

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