Rocks displaying fossils and signs of life

Rock stars: the fossil record comes to life

Fossils allow us a glimpse of the past

Using fossils, we can trace evolutionary relationships and surmise how life has changed over millions of years.

By dating the rock in which a fossil is found, it is possible to tell when a particular animal or plant lived on the Earth. Unfortunately, this record has many gaps because very few organisms become fossilised.

Palaeontologists are still scouring the world for new or better fossils and have made some remarkable discoveries in recent years: increased activity in China and the surrounding regions has been particularly important. We could well be entering a new golden age of fossil analysis.

Discoveries in recent years include:

  • a fossil of a bird embryo inside an egg, with soft tissues such as feathers intact (121 million years old)
  • a spider’s web with insects trapped within it (110 million years old)
  • fossil embryos of early multicellular life forms (600 million years old)
  • a nearly modern duck (110 million years old)
  • a half-fish, half-reptile, named Tiktaalik, that was one of the first land-dwelling animals (380 million years old)
  • fossil microbial mats (3.2 billion years old)
  • a Jurassic-era aquatic mammal with a beaver-like tail and seal-like teeth (165 million years old).

Lead image:

Laurence Ireland/Flickr CC BY

Questions for discussion

  • Why are gaps in the fossil record to be expected?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Ecology and environment, Careers, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development