Fossil Record: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Lindsy Frazer

Dr. Frazer has taught several college level Science courses and has a master's degree in Human Biology and a PhD in Library and Information Science.

What do fossils and puzzle pieces have in common? Read this lesson to learn about the fossil record and how it helps scientists piece together information about the history of life on Earth.

Prehistoric Puzzle

If you were going to bake a birthday cake for Earth, you would need to find 4.5 billion candles. That's right - the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Imagine trying to blow all those candles out!

For much of the 4.5 billion years Earth has been around, many different creatures have called our planet home. Some of these organisms, or living things, are still around, and some have gone extinct, meaning that they're no longer in existence. In fact, over 99% of all plants and animals that have ever lived on Earth are extinct.

Although humans have never seen many of the organisms that are now extinct, like dinosaurs, roaming around in the wild, we know quite a bit about when, where and how they lived from studying their fossils. Fossils are the preserved remains of plants or animals that are more than 10,000 years old.

Individual fossils can tell us a lot, but a fossil record, the entire collection of fossils of a living thing ever discovered, tells us about the history of an organism's life on Earth. We can even use the term fossil record to talk about all of the fossils ever discovered, which together document the entire history of life on Earth.

You can think of fossil records as giant puzzles. Each individual fossil uncovered is a puzzle piece, and together they make the picture of the history of a living thing's life on Earth a bit clearer.

How Fossil Records Form

When a plant or animal dies its body usually rots away over time, but sometimes it can become buried stopping the decay. If buried under the right conditions a fossil will form.

Over time, new layers of soil and rock cover a fossil burying it deeper in the ground. The longer a fossil is around the more layers of rock form on top of it. So, older fossils are buried deeper in the ground in older layers of rock than younger fossils. The deeper you dig the farther back in time you go!

Paleontologists, scientists who study fossils, compare the location of fossils in different layers of rock to piece together the timeline of a fossil record. Fossil found in older, deeper layers are said to be older than fossil found in younger rock layers closer to the surface. Using the location of fossils in different layers of rock to determine which fossils are older and which are younger is called relative dating. Relative dating doesn't give an exact age in years. Instead, it tells us how old fossils are in comparison to each other.

Scientist use the location of fossils in different layers of rock to determine which fossils are older.

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