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Using Fossil Evidence to Evaluate Changes in Environment & Life Conditions

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  • 0:00 Fossils as Clues
  • 0:54 Basic Facts About…
  • 1:50 Changes in Climate
  • 2:42 Changes in Life Conditions
  • 3:37 Localized Effects
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

How can something that died tens of millions of years ago help people in the present day understand the past? In the case of fossils, these long-dead specimens can be perfect clues for figuring out changes in environment and life conditions.

Fossils as Clues

If you've ever found a fossil, it's pretty clear that the world has changed a great deal since the organism that formed that fossil lived. After all, it took a lot of time for a living organism to become a perfect imprint on stone! Still, there are other examples of fossils that seem out of place that can inform our understanding of the past. Perhaps you found a fossil of a water-loving organism in the middle of the desert -- that would be something pretty strange.

Luckily, scientists love looking at strange things like that, because they serve as important clues about the past. In this lesson, we're going to look at the ways that fossils can help scientists better understand the past. This is not only with respect to the life that once lived on the Earth, but also what the world looked like and even more about the temperature of that particular region.

Basic Facts About Using Fossils

So wait, how can we even use fossils in our investigations? Well, there are a number of tools at our disposal right off the bat. Fossils are, first and foremost, surrounded by geology. Whether it's the remains of a tar pit, sand, or good old-fashioned rock, a fossil's surroundings offer plenty of clues.

Through radioactive dating, we can get a range of formation from the surrounding materials due to the amount of certain isotopes left in a mineral. Likewise, relative geological aging lets us say that the fossil is probably older than anything that formed on top of it but younger than anything under it.

Also, the type of fossil really matters as well. When most of us think of fossils, we think of the remains of the bones and teeth of an animal. However, imprints of leaves, tracks, and even animal feces can be fossilized. Without going into too much detail, these offer some pretty valuable hints about what life on Earth was like in the distant past.

Fossils Showing Changes in Climate

Let's say that we were looking to establish the time period in which something became fossilized. In short, we'd be looking at the climate of the fossils in question. At the bottom of the strata, or rock layer, that you're looking at, you notice a lot of tropical ferns as fossils. Towards the top, you notice pine needle fossils.

So, what happened? First, you have to ask yourself a few questions. Where would you expect to find each of those plants? Likely, you'd expect to find the ferns in a hot climate and the pine needles in a cooler region. As such, this is probably a pretty good indication that there was some significant level of climate change to allow for this to happen. Remember, the deeper you go in the rock, the older the fossils and rocks.

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