How are fossils formed? We recently came across a comment about one of our blogs, Gaining Weight In The Grave, that was brought up on a blog of a prominent creationist, Jason Lisle, and we wanted to elaborate on the possibility of a felt hat fossilizing. The commenter referred to the fossilized hat being a hoax. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2003 Ultimate Reference Suite). A fossil is formed by:
“The hard parts of organisms that become buried in sediment may be subject to a variety of other changes during their conversion to solid rock, however. Solutions may fill the interstices, or pores, of the shell or bone with calcium carbonate or other mineral salts and thus fossilize the remains, in a process known as permineralization. In other cases there may be a total replacement of the original skeletal material by other mineral matter, a process known as mineralization, or replacement. In still other cases, circulating acid solutions may dissolve the original shell but leave a cavity corresponding to it, and circulating calcareous or siliceous solutions may then deposit a new matrix in the cavity, thus creating a new impression of the original shell.
By contrast, the soft parts of animals or plants are very rarely preserved. The embedding of insects in amber and the preservation of the carcasses of Pleistocene-era mammoths in ice are rare but striking examples of the fossil preservation of soft tissues. Traces of organisms may also occur as tracks or trails or even borings.“ (emphasis added)
In other words, an organism is buried in mud or submerged in a mineral solution to protect it from scavengers and rapid decay before it has a chance to fossilize. With the right conditions, certain minerals and water content, the pores are filled with minerals or the organic material is replaced by minerals causing the organic material to become a fossil.
But there is more to being a fossil, below are some other types of fossilization.
Recrystallization is where calcium carbonate of shells will recrystalize into calcite.
Carbonization, which happens mostly in plants, is when the oils of an organism are leached out and the remains of the organism are reduced to a carbon film.
But what about petrifaction? The Encarta Encyclopedia explains it this way.
“Another common mode of preservation of plants is petrifaction, which is the crystallization of minerals inside cells. One of the best-known forms of petrifaction is silicification, a process in which silica-rich fluids enter the plant’s cells and crystallize, making the cells appear to have turned to stone (petrified).” (Encarta 2004 Encyclopedia Deluxe. © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)
When I researched the process of petrifaction, it is explained as either minerals crystallizing inside of cells and pores (permineralization) or minerals replacing the organic material (mineralization). So I prefer to use the terms permineralization and mineralization instead of petrifaction to avoid some misunderstandings.
Another informational source defined a fossil in these words.
“The definition of fossil by the American Geological Institute begins, ‘The remains or traces of animals or plants which have been preserved by natural causes in the Earth’s crust.’ There is nothing in this definition that requires transformation into rock. All that is important is that the fossil has been preserved. And preservation is a qualitative term that does not describe how the fossil was preserved.” (From the article “A fossil is a fossil is a fossil. Right?” by Cecil Allen of Creation Ministries International.)
With this information about fossils. I believe there is a misconception of what is a fossil in the minds of people. Many people think fossils are just bones (bones are made of some cells, calcium phosphate, which in humans the mineral component is called hydroxyapatite, which is calcium phosphate reinforced by protein fibres, called collagen) turned to stone, but that is not the case. Carbonization which is just a carbon film is a fossil. Mammoths frozen in ice are fossils. Insects and other small creatures incased in tree resin are fossils. So a fossil does not have to be bones turned to stone.
There is also a misconception about dinosaur fossils. I believe most people think they are dinosaur bones changed to stone, but that is not the case for many dinosaur fossils. Many, or most, bones are permineralization. Some bones show little evidence of permineralization, for example the fossil specimen MOR 555. It is an exceptionally well preserved specimen of a T-rex which is mostly pure bone! This creature was supposed to have died and been buried 65 million years ago, but the bones today are about the same as when it was buried.
In Alaska, scientists have discovered dinosaur bones which they originally thought were just old dried out bison or cow bones. But after twenty years, they realized they were dinosaur bones with little or no permineralization.
This brings us to another fossil which is also a permineralized example . It is a miner’s hat found in a mine in Australia. The hat was made from felt which is made from wool. Wool is not made of cells, but proteins. The felt has many pores which were impregnated by calcium carbonate rich water. This processes is also called calcification. Since it is an organic substance, the hat can decay leaving the calcium carbonate. This process happened in about fifty years.
Also with looking at the evidence, we notice that the amount of permineralized or mineralized material does not indicate age, but the conditions in which the organic material was buried or submerged in. So fossils do not have to be billions or millions or tens of thousands of years old, but could easily be thousands or even decades old.
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