How Long Does Something Have to Be In the Ground Before It's Considered a Fossil?

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Jelle Zijlstra:

The other answers here say that to be a fossil, something has to be mineralized in some way. The other answers are wrong.

At least, they don’t agree with common definitions in dictionaries and in paleontology. Usually, any remains or traces of an organism preserved in the ground are counted as fossils. People are less likely to use the term fossil for remains from the last 10,000 years (the Holocene, our geological period), but that is obviously arbitrary.

Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of fossil:

Something preserved in the ground, especially in petrified form in rock, and recognizable as the remains of a living organism of a former geological period, or as preserving an impression or trace of such an organism.

Especially in petrified form, not always in petrified form. They also say that “the term fossil is usually reserved for remains older than 10,000 years."

My textbook on paleobotany (Taylor et al., 2009, Paleobotany, Academic Press) doesn’t give a definition of the word fossil, but it does provide a nice catalog of the various kinds of plant fossils. Those include petrified wood, but they also include compression fossils, which are the result of the original plant material being compressed. No mineralization necessary. Pollen grains are a very common kind of plant fossil, and they are usually preserved unmineralized. Amber can isolate organic material sufficiently that it is preserved virtually unchanged.

Most paleontologists don’t discuss the definition of fossil, because it’s not terribly controversial. In one of my own papers I used the word for remains of the fossil rodent Cordimus hooijeri that are only a few hundred years old and not noticeably mineralized. Nobody called me out on it.

I did find one paper that explicitly discusses definitions: "A New Species of Fossil Ptinus from Fossil Wood Rat Nests in California and Arizona" (Coleoptera, Ptinidae), with a postscript on the definition of a fossil. This was in the context of beetles from woodrat middens, which were preserved as mostly unchanged exoskeletons. The author settled on “A specimen, a replacement of a specimen, or the work or evidence of a specimen that lived in the past and was naturally preserved rather than buried by man.” Again, no reference to mineralization. He discussed using the term fossil only for remains that are more than 10,000 years old; subfossil for remains before recorded history; and nonfossil for remains from recorded history. But that seemed arbitrary and unworkable; recorded history started at different times in different places.

Fossils are the remains of organisms of the past, regardless of their mode of preservation. Where exactly you draw the line between “organisms of the past” and “organisms of the present that just happen to be dead” is arbitrary and it usually doesn’t matter. If you need a definition (for example, if you’re making a list of fossil and nonfossil species), you come up with a reasonable if arbitrary definition. If you don’t need a precise definition, you don’t.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

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Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

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iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

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