Teachers Powered by teachers'domain

Becoming a Fossil

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 09.26.03
  • NOVA

The remains of the vast majority of organisms that die are eaten by scavengers or decompose beyond recognition before they can be preserved. The conditions under which fossils can successfully form are unusual, and the odds that a fossil will then be exposed at the surface again, and discovered, are smaller still. Footage courtesy of NOVA: "In Search of Human Origins."

NOVA Becoming a Fossil
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 2m 34s
  • Size: 3.5 MB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

  • Log in to Teachers' Domain to download, share, rate, save, and match to state standards.

Source: NOVA: "In Search of Human Origins"


The study of how life evolved would be impossible if not for the history that is told in the fossilized remains going back billions of years. Scientists have described about 250,000 different fossil species, yet that is a small fraction of those that lived in the past.

The oldest fossils are remains of marine organisms that populated the planet's oceans. When they died, the plants and animals were buried by mud, sand, or silt on the sea floor. Land animals and plants usually decomposed or were eaten, and mainly the hard parts -- teeth, bones, shells, or wood -- were preserved.

Fossils can be formed in several ways. Buried bone and shell contain tiny air spaces into which water can seep, depositing minerals. Reinforced by these mineral deposits, bone and shell can survive for millions of years. Even if the bone or shell dissolves, the mineral deposits in the shape of the body structure remain.

Besides rock, fossils may be found as the result of an organism being entombed in ice, tar (like the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles), or amber, in which ancient insects have been found, wonderfully preserved. Rare but highly informative are fossils created by a sudden event, like a volcanic eruption, that traps living things or, in the famous case in Laetoli, Ethiopia, footprints of human ancestors millions of years old.

Fossil remains come to the attention of scientists when they are exposed at Earth's surface. Erosion, land movements, or excavations often have revealed important fossil finds.

Especially rich fossil troves are called Lagerstatten, a German word meaning storehouse. These are localities where conditions were right to preserve even soft-bodied animals, and they allow scientists to read a key portion of life's history. In the famous Burgess Shale in Canada, for example, scientists have found dozens of bizarre, previously unknown animals.

Interpretation of fossils poses another set of challenges, and their age can only be estimated by radiometric dating of rocks they were found near or within. Discovery of fossils is only the beginning of mining their secrets.

Plot locations of important African finds in the search for early human remains in this NOVA classroom activity.

Questions for Discussion

  • Discuss the rather restricted set of circumstances under which a large mammal, such as an early hominid, could first become fossilized and then be discovered by researchers.
  • How might conditions for successful fossilization differ between mammals and plants? Why?
  • Discuss how different organisms living in different niches might have very different probabilities of being fossilized.

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

Related Resources

  • Bones of Contention

    This interactive activity from NOVA invites you to do the work of scientists and use a database to classify ...

  • Fossil Evidence

    Examine five transitional species that fill so-called gaps in the fossil record.

  • Fossil Evidence of Bipedalism

    This video segment adapted from NOVA shows how scientists use the fossil record to trace when early human an...