Estimating The Dates of OrganismsPecten gibbus Calyptraphorus
niagarense Bathyurus extans Paradoxides pinus Neptunea tabulata Venericardia
labiatus Nerinea trinodosa Monotis
proliferum Prolecanites gurleyi Palmatolepus
unicornis Hexamocaras hertzeri Tetragraptus fructicosus Billingsella corrugata Common index fossils used to date rocks in North-East USA
Paleontology seeks to map out how living things have changed through time. A substantial hurdle to this aim is the difficulty of working out how old fossils are. Beds that preserve fossils typically lack the radioactive elements needed for radiometric dating. This technique is our only means of giving rocks greater than about 50 million years old an absolute age, and can be accurate to within 0.5% or better. Although radiometric dating requires very careful laboratory work, its basic principle is simple: the rates at which various radioactive elements decay are known, and so the ratio of the radioactive element to the element into which it decays shows how long ago the radioactive element was incorporated into the rock. Radioactive elements are common only in rocks with a volcanic origin, and so the only fossil-bearing rocks that can be dated radiometrically are a few volcanic ash layers.
Consequently, palaeontologists must usually rely on stratigraphy to date fossils. Stratigraphy is the science of deciphering the "layer-cake" that is the sedimentary record, and has been compared to a jigsaw puzzle. Rocks normally form relatively horizontal layers, with each layer younger than the one underneath it. If a fossil is found between two layers whose ages are known, the fossil's age must lie between the two known ages. Because rock sequences are not continuous, but may be broken up by faults or periods of erosion, it is very difficult to match up rock beds that are not directly next to one another. However, fossils of species that survived for a relatively short time can be used to link up isolated rocks: this technique is called biostratigraphy. For instance, the conodont Eoplacognathus pseudoplanus has a short range in the Middle Ordovician period. If rocks of unknown age are found to have traces of E. pseudoplanus, they must have a mid-Ordovician age. Such index fossils must be distinctive, be globally distributed and have a short time range to be useful. However, misleading results are produced if the index fossils turn out to have longer fossil ranges than first thought. Stratigraphy and biostratigraphy can in general provide only relative dating (A was before B), which is often sufficient for studying evolution. However, this is difficult for some time periods, because of the problems involved in matching up rocks of the same age across different continents.
Family-tree relationships may also help to narrow down the date when lineages first appeared. For instance, if fossils of B or C date to X million years ago and the calculated "family tree" says A was an ancestor of B and C, then A must have evolved more than X million years ago.
It is also possible to estimate how long ago two living clades diverged – i.e. approximately how long ago their last common ancestor must have lived – by assuming that DNA mutations accumulate at a constant rate. These "molecular clocks", however, are fallible, and provide only a very approximate timing: for example, they are not sufficiently precise and reliable for estimating when the groups that feature in the Cambrian explosion first evolved, and estimates produced by different techniques may vary by a factor of two.
Read more about this topic: Paleontology
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