Evidence for evolution - fossils

A fossil is the preserved remains of a dead organism from millions of years ago. Fossils are found in rocks and can be formed from:

  • Hard body parts, such as bones and shells, which do not decay easily or are replaced by minerals as they decay.
  • Parts of organisms that have not decayed because one or more of the conditions needed for decay are absent. For example, dead animals and plants can be preserved in amber, peat bogs, tar pits, or in ice.
  • Preserved traces of organisms, such as footprints, burrows and rootlet traces - these become covered by layers of sediment, which eventually become rock.
Ammonite fossil
Ammonite fossils are sea creatures that became extinct about 65 million years ago

The fossil record

Fossil remains have been found in rocks of all ages. Fossils of the simplest organisms are found in the oldest rocks, and fossils of more complex organisms in the newest rocks. This supports Darwin's theory of evolution, which states that simple life forms gradually evolved into more complex ones.

Evidence for early forms of life comes from fossils. By studying fossils, scientists can learn how much (or how little) organisms have changed as life developed on Earth.

There are gaps in the fossil record because many early forms of life were soft-bodied, which means that they have left few traces behind. What traces there were may have been destroyed by geological activity. This is why scientists cannot be certain about how life began.

Fossils provide a snapshot of the past and allow us to study how much or how little organisms have changed as life developed on Earth.

Cross-section of soil.  At the bottom are the oldest rocks and fossils and at the top the newest

Evolutionary trees

Evolutionary trees are used to represent the relationships between organisms. Branches show places where new species have been formed by evolution.

Evolutionary trees are a method used by scientists to represent the relationships between a set of organisms.

In this evolutionary tree, species A and B share a recent common ancestor. Species A is therefore most similar to species B.

Species F and G also share a recent, yet different, common ancestor, which itself shared a common ancestor with species E. All seven species share a common ancestor, probably from the distant past. The information is collected from a variety of sources such as fossil records to DNA sequences.

Ice and peat fossils

Under certain conditions, fossils might not have been created. Parts of organisms do not always decay because the conditions needed might be absent and so they may be preserved in different ways. For example, dead animals and plants can be preserved in amber, peat bogs, tar pits, or in ice instead.