Microfossils: Definition, Uses & Importance

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

In this lesson, we discuss microfossils, who uses them, for what, and why they are useful in today's world. You'll also learn why microfossils is a specialty study apart from other fossils.

What Are Microfossils?

Picture yourself on assignment as a micropaleontologist. You're not just any paleontologist; you're part of a special branch of paleontology that studies microfossils, tiny fossils that require a microscope to identify and study. This is a special study apart from the study of larger fossils, because it requires more specific skills to extract these very tiny fossils from sedimentary rock. In fact, just one small sample of rock can hold thousands of microfossils. Because they are so tiny--most coming in at under 1 mm in size--most are still well-preserved and protected in the rock, not having been exposed to the elements.

Microfossils require a microscope to identify and study

You begin by collecting some rock samples from your school's yard. As you begin to extract your fossils, you notice all kinds of microfossils. Of course, you need to use a microscope as many of them aren't visible with the naked eye. Among the microfossils you find, you notice some are animals and some are plants. Some are unicellular and some are multicellular. Some are made of silica while others are made of calcium.

Microfossils can be found almost anywhere. They are very plentiful in sedimentary rock. They can be found in the ocean depths in the ooze as well as in rock cliffs. And of course, you can find them in your school or even home backyard.

What Are Microfossils Used For?

It might seem that microfossils don't have much use other than to see what kinds of animals used to live on the earth a long time ago. But that's not true. Studying microfossils has a lot of uses.

Microfossils are used to determine how old a piece of rock is and determine if there is gas or oil in the area. They are also used to see what kinds of major geological events took place such as earthquakes or major weather changes such as ice storms. Actually, it is the oil industry that's spurred the growth and advancement of micropaleontology studies. The oil industry uses microfossils to determine the locations of old delta reservoirs for oil.

After you're done collecting your microfossils, you now go back to your lab to analyze them and learn about what's happened to them. For example, you might see that these microfossils all died thousands of years ago at the same time. This tells you that there might have been a big flood in the area you found them. Since you found this rock in the school's yard, this means that the ground your school is on was once flooded over.

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