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What is a Fossil and Where Can You Find Some?

imprint of ancient trilobites in stone
Merlin74/Shutterstock

Fossils link us to the past and tell the history of the world. They’re sometimes small and occasionally large. It’s no mystery where they come from, but it’s interesting how they form.

What Are Fossils?

If you’ve walked along the beach and picked up stones with pitted areas or that looked as though they had shells stuck in them, you’ve likely seen, and even held a fossil. In the simplest of terms, fossils are preserved remains of ancient life. They are rock-like formations that home traces fo dinosaurs, fish, insects, and even plants.

Paleontologists study fossils, able to determine how long ago the animal lived. They are the ones digging up dinosaur bones and fossils left from other ancient animals. Archaeologists are also known for excavating, but they study the history of humans.

When an animal dies, and it becomes buried in the ground, for whatever reason, it begins the process of becoming a fossil. Plants that end up buried in dirt, clay, or sand also have the potential to become fossils. While bones and shells are the most likely parts to create fossils, the sooner an animal is buried, the better chances there will be a fossil found there in the future.

It is partially because of this process that you’ll find more fossils in some areas than in others. Wherever there has been a body of water (even if it dried up thousands of years ago) offers a prominent place to find fossils.

How Fossils Form

Dinosaur Fossil (Tyrannosaurus Rex)
Rafael Trafaniuc/Shutterstock

Fossils form in a few different ways. They can develop with the help of water, they can form within volcanic ash, and they can even be formed because of tree sap. Here is a look at some of the most common ways fossils are created.

Fossils Formed in Water

Most often, fossils are formed when an animal dies near or in water and quickly becomes covered and lost in the muck. The water flowing through and around the bones and sediment creates what we dig up later and use to learn about animals and plants of the past.

  • Natural Casting – Fish and other marine life are often fossilized by leaving a natural impression in sediment in flowing waters. No bone or tissue ends up left behind, just an impression of the former animal, which ends up willed with organic materials in the water.
  • Permineralization – When you find a fossil that is in the shape of the animal it once was, it was fossilized by permineralization. The teeth and bones left behind by the deceased animal become filled with minerals from inside the groundwater, crystalizing them. This same process creates petrified wood.

Fossils Formed Without Water

Water isn’t the only way to create a fossil. Some fossils happen because of other materials the animal or their remains get caught in.

  • Preserved Remains – When the earth experienced the ice age when volcanoes erupt unexpectedly, and when animals sink into tar pits and peat bogs, fossils are formed. In these cases, the entire animal is encased in a material that keeps them intact. This is one of the least common ways fossils are created, as it’s a rare process.
  • Amber Preservation – When a bug, animal, or plant gets stuck in tree sap, the sap hardens into a resin around them, leaving them trapped forever. Small animals, like frogs and lizards, and insects are some of the fossilized creatures most commonly found encased in amber.

Animals and plants aren’t all you might find fossilized. It’s also common to find trace fossils, such as animal poop, footprints, nests, and more. These remnants, along with the animals, form a fossil record.

The Best Places to Find Fossils

If you’re ready for a fossil finding adventure, you definitely want to look for places on the water. Towns with shorelines offer plenty of chances to come across fossilized animals of the land and the sea.

Whether you have children interested in dinosaurs and fossils, or you’re looking for a creative vacation idea that includes long romantic walks on the beach between time spent digging in the sand, there are plenty of vacation destinations worth checking out. You can find a plethora of Petoskey stones around the shorelines of Northern Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and even in the Upper Peninsula. Booking.com has some other excellent fossil vacation destinations worth checking out.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »