How long does something have to be in the ground before you can call it a fossil?

The other answers here say that to be a fossil, something has to be mineralized in some way. The other answers are wrong.

At least, they don’t agree with common definitions in dictionaries and in paleontology. Usually, any remains or traces of an organism preserved in the ground are counted as fossils. People are less likely to use the term “fossil” for remains from the last 10,000 years (the Holocene, our geological period), but that is obviously arbitrary.

Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “fossil”:

Something preserved in the ground, esp. in petrified form in rock, and recognizable as the remains of a living organism of a former geological period, or as preserving an impression or trace of such an organism.

Especially in petrified form, not always in petrified form. They also say that “the term fossil is usually reserved for remains older than 10,000 years”.

My textbook on paleobotany (Taylor et al., 2009, Paleobotany, Academic Press) doesn’t give a definition of the word “fossil”, but it does provide a nice catalog of the various kinds of plant fossils. Those include petrified wood, but they also include compression fossils, which are the result of the original plant material being compressed. No mineralization necessary. Pollen grains are a very common kind of plant fossil, and they are usually preserved unmineralized. Amber can isolate organic material sufficiently that it is preserved virtually unchanged.

Most paleontologists don’t discuss the definition of “fossil”, because it’s not terribly controversial. In one of my own papers I used the word for remains of the fossil rodent Cordimus hooijeri that are only a few hundred years old and not noticeably mineralized. Nobody called me out on it.

I did find one paper that explicitly discusses definitions: A New Species of Fossil Ptinus from Fossil Wood Rat Nests in California and Arizona (Coleoptera, Ptinidae), with a Postscript on the Definition of a Fossil. This was in the context of beetles from woodrat middens, which were preserved as mostly unchanged exoskeletons. The author settled on “A specimen, a replacement of a specimen, or the work or evidence of a specimen that lived in the past and was naturally preserved rather than buried by man.” Again, no reference to mineralization. He discussed using “fossil” only for remains that are more than 10,000 years old; “subfossil” for remains before recorded history; and “nonfossil” for remains from recorded history. But that seemed arbitrary and unworkable: recorded history started at different times in different places.

Fossils are the remains of organisms of the past, regardless of their mode of preservation. Where exactly you draw the line between “organisms of the past” and “organisms of the present that just happen to be dead” is arbitrary and it usually doesn’t matter. If you need a definition (for example, if you’re making a list of fossil and nonfossil species), you come up with a reasonable if arbitrary definition. If you don’t need a precise definition, you don’t.

This information was taken from Quora. Click here to view the original post.

Did you find this explanation interesting? You are welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below!

#Science #Nature #Quora


What are your thoughts on this subject?
Tom Erskine
I know a fossil. Been around since Fred Flintstone, but he's good to my sister and he makes cute kids, so I'm okay with him!
Jan 11, 2019 7:06PM
Cheryl McMeekin
Very interesting
Jan 5, 2020 12:07PM
Jacqueline Tattam
More quora rubbish
May 26, 2019 7:18PM
Keith Scholl
My children have classified me as a fossil.
Apr 7, 2019 4:52PM
Marian Spitzig
I am tired of articles taken from Quora...
Mar 3, 2019 5:31PM
Very interesting and educational. Thank you.
Feb 28, 2019 6:23PM
Pretty brief article. Not that interesting either.
Feb 23, 2019 4:25AM
Lydia Coutts
Wow, this is the laziest ‘article’ stolen from Quora yet. You could have at least removed the reference to other answers. 🙄 Here’s a novel idea: why doesn’t QuizzClub write its own articles instead of lifting questions and answers wholesale from Quora without even bothering to edit them so that they make sense?
Jan 28, 2019 10:33PM
Jacky Pierce Friedman
I agree with Richard Perkins. Gave no reference to other answers. However. The article is still very interesting.
Oct 13, 2018 8:24PM
Richard Perkins
"The other answers here say that to be a fossil, something has to be mineralized in some way. The other answers are wrong." What other answers?
Oct 5, 2018 9:31AM
Gerald Goltz
I know a few "fossils" and they are not even buried. There are lots of old things and they can be called anything. Why does an object have to have a particular age to be considered a fossil?
Oct 4, 2018 3:23PM

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