Microfossils: Types & Examples

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Microfossils are made of the remains of tiny organisms or parts of organisms. They are so small that they can only be seen with a microscope, but incredibly important to science. In this lesson, learn more about what microfossils are and how they are used by scientists!

What Are Microfossils?

Joseph sits in a quiet, dark room in front of a microscope. Inside the microscope is a sample of a rock that was recently collected from a cliff face. Joseph stares intently into the microscope as he works, and what he sees is amazing. Inside what looks like a solid rock are many thousands of tiny fossilized organisms.

Although most people typically think that looking for fossils involves going out into nature and looking for relatively large objects that are preserved in rocks and soil, people like Joseph are fossil hunters too! He uses a microscope to look for some of the tiniest fossils that exist. These tiny fossils that are too small to see with the naked eye are called microfossils, and they are extremely abundant throughout the world. However, because they are so small (typically less than about 1 mm in size), they can only be seen using a light or electron microscope. Despite their tiny size, they can provide a lot of information about the past. We have even found what appears to be microfossils in rocks collected from outer space!

This microfossil is from an extinct single celled organism.
Example of a microfossil

What Kinds of Things Become Microfossils?

Since the only qualification necessary to be classified as a microfossil is size, all kinds of things can become microfossils. Some are plants, some are animals, but a whole lot are bacteria and other small organisms called protists. These tiny creatures are extremely abundant throughout the world and are very highly represented in the microfossil record.

Microfossils of bacteria and fungi are probably among the most abundant, but they are also the smallest, so they are more difficult to find and study. Protists, which are typically single celled organisms much larger than bacteria, are commonly studied microfossils. In fact, about 50% of all species of protists that have ever been discovered were identified from fossils.

Plant microfossils can include small parts of plants, like pollen or spores that are released by the plant. Small animals can also form microfossils, and in some cases, tiny fragments of bone or other hard tissues from larger animals can be found in the microfossil record as well.

What Can We Learn from Microfossils?

Microfossils are used by scientists in a variety of incredibly important ways. One of the most common uses of microfossils is in dating rocks and reconstructing ancient environments. This information is used by geologists and also by people working in the oil and gas industry. Understanding the microfossils in a certain area can help locate underground oil reserves and help engineers determine the best way to mine for oil.

Microfossils are also used to reconstruct the evolutionary record. Some types of rock, in particular certain types of sedimentary rock, are made almost entirely of ancient microfossils. These often contain fossilized organisms that have since gone extinct and can be used by scientists to learn more about the types of animals and other organisms that lived long ago.

Sedimentary rock, like this sandstone, is partially composed of billions and billions of microfossils.
Sedimentary rock is often composed of ancient microfossils

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