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Fossilization

Fossilization is the alteration of an organism's remains, impressions or activities by physical, biological or chemical changes retaining the original material in some form. The two most common types of fossilization found within the Morden and District Museum are permineralization and replacement.

Permineralization or commonly petrification, occurs in porous material like wood, bones and shells. Bones are the most abundant type of fossil found in the area with a few large specimens of petrified wood. The organic material of an organism or plant is porous, containing holes within its structure. Once buried, supersaturated ground water supersaturated commonly with calcium carbonate or silica and in some instances gypsum or selenite, precipitates into the spaces or pores. After a duration of time and pressure, the minerals within the structure will stabilize and form the fossil we see today.

Replacement is the other common type of fossilization in the Morden area. In this instance the ground water will seep into the existing remains of an organism and dissolve it. At the same time the space left behind from the dissolved material may be filled in with other sediments or minerals such as silica or pyrite.

Preservation and Taphonomy

Fossil preservation preserves the remains or activities of organisms. Taphonomy is a process that describes the events taken place on an organism from the time of its death to its discovery as a fossil. Only the right circumstances can preserve an organism into a fossil.

How Fossils are Formed

The odds against any specific individual organism becoming a fossil are very great indeed. To become fossilized, a plant or animal must usually have hard parts, such as bone, shell, or wood. It also must be buried quickly to prevent decay or disintegration.

Even if the requirements for preservation have been met, there are other factors which might prevent fossils from being discovered. Many fossils have been destroyed by erosion, or the rock enclosing the fossil is subjected to temperatures and pressure which destroy those fossils. Much of the fossil record is in deeply buried deposits that are inaccessible to study.

Fossils are not only very rare but they are also give a limited view of life through the past (because of selective preservation of certain types of organisms). Those plants and animals living in or near water, where sediments accumulate quickly, are more likely to be preserved than those living on dry land.

Fossilization Processes

How fossils are formed.

Original Soft Parts

The fossilization of unaltered soft parts takes place only under exceptional favorable conditions.

Freezing

Wooly mammoths and rhinoceroses have been found in permanently frozen ground in Alaska and Siberia. These animals were frozen so rapidly and are so perfectly preserved that the food remains unchewed in their mouths.

Drying

Fossil mummies of ground sloths and camels, virtually in an unaltered state, have been found in caves in southern United States. Even skin and hair retain their original color.

Amber

Insects were trapped in the sticky gum of certain conifers and then engulfed in more resin. The resin hardened with time and leaving the insect undamaged and in a perfect state of preservation.

Peat Bogs

Relatively recent fossils of animals preserving flesh, skin and hair have been found in peat bogs where the tannic acid in the water has prevented their decay.

Original Hard Parts

These are often preserved with little or no alteration. The hard bones and teeth of vertebrates are common examples. The shells of certain invertebrates frequently remain intact.

Altered Soft Parts

On rare occasions the soft parts of plants and animals may also be altered over time and preserved.

Carbonization

As leaves or soft parts of animals slowly decomposed under water the oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen were driven off. The carbon molecules, being very stable, remained behind as a thin carbon film.

Trace Fossils

Only a trace or an impression of the organism provides evidence of the plant or animal responsible for it.

Molds

A mold is the impression of an organism in the surrounding material. A shell may be buried in sediment and the shell itself may be dissolved away. The impression of the outside of the shell is known as an external mold. If the inside of the shell had filled with sediment than an internal mold or stein-kern may be preserved.

Casts

All the original buried plant or animal may dissolve away so that only a cavity remains. Later dissolved minerals may fill the cavity forming a natural cast of the original.

Tracks

Footprints made by animals as they walked over soft sediments. The sediments then hardened to stone preserving the prints.

Burrows

Tubes or holes in the ground made by an animal for shelter or in search of food. These tubes may later become filled with different sediments and preserved.

Borings

Holes made by animals on other organisms for the sake of food, attachment, or possibly shelter. Such holes frequently occur in shells and wood.

Coprolites

Fossil excrement of anything from worms to large dinosaurs. The study of coprolites provides valuable information pertaining to diet and anatomical structure.

Gastroliths

Stomach stones” are highly polished rounded stones believed to have been an aid in grinding the stomach contents of extinct reptiles.

Altered Hard Parts

The original hard structures of many organisms may undergo considerable alteration with the passing of time.

Permineralization

As the hard parts lie buried in the sediment, ground water carrying dissolved minerals infiltrates the microscopic pores in bone, shells, or wood, depositing their mineral content. The original structure is preserved.

Replacement

The original hard parts are dissolved by chemical action and other minerals are substituted. The size and shape of the fossil are not disturbed but the structure is imperfectly preserved. Two common replacement minerals are silica and pyrite.

Petrification

Both permineralization and replacement are commonly referred to as petrification which means 'turned to stone'.

Tar Pits

Vast numbers of fossils have been found in the asphalt deposits of Rancho La Brea, California. Prehistoric animals which gathered to drink at certain water pools were trapped in underlying tar seeps. Their accumulated bones have been removed in an excellent state of preservation.

Pseudofossils

Many objects of inorganic origin closely resemble forms of organic action.

Dendrites

Thin branching patterns which superficially resemble a fern or moss. They are produced by certain minerals, crystallizing similar to frost on a window.

Concretions

Hardened masses of mineral substances which are commonly mistaken for fossils. Under unusual conditions of weathering, these may be sculptured in shapes resembling plants or animals.

Types of Fossils

Plants, bones, shells, casts, amber, botany.