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Fossil Record: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is the Fossil Record?
  • 0:32 Fossil Record Examples
  • 2:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson teaches you about the fossil record. It explains how scientists learn about Earth's distant past and highlights what fossils can tell scientists about ourselves and other organisms.

What Is the Fossil Record?

Earth is approximately four billion years old. How long have people been around? The consensus among the scientific community is that modern humans have roamed the earth for about 200,000 years. What that means is that modern humans have missed 99.99% of Earth's history! So, how can a species that's arrived only recently possibly understand what organisms existed before our arrival? The key to our understanding resides in the fossil record. The fossil record is a huge collection of fossils that document the history of life on Earth.

Fossil Record Examples

The fossil record is filled with example organisms from Earth's past. We're going to touch on three fossil records that should be of interest to most people: dinosaurs, horses, and ourselves.

Our first example, the dinosaurs, went extinct around 65 million years ago. Extinct means that all members of a species or another grouping of organisms have died off. Therefore, everything we know about dinosaurs comes from the fossil record. Their size, shape, and even certain behaviors, like predation, can be learned through the study of their fossils. Remember that fossils can be impressions in rock, preserved mineral deposits in the shape of bone, footprints in volcanic ash, or other preserved prehistoric material.

This impression of a small dinosaur skeleton is part of the fossil record.

This fossil teaches us that dinosaurs came in all sorts of different sizes. This specimen is actually quite small, unlike what many people envision when they think of dinosaurs. It also moved on two legs and likely ate meat, as indicated by the skeletal structure and tooth shape. This animal's fossil record tells the story of a small predatory dinosaur.

In addition to learning about what prehistoric organisms looked like and how they may have acted, we can also use the fossil record to study how they've evolved over time. For example, the fossil record of horses tells us that horses used to be considerably smaller than they are today, which can be seen in this illustration of different fossils over time.

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