So, how do we know how old a fossil is? There are two main methods determining a fossils age, relative dating and absolute dating. Relative dating is used to determine a fossils approximate age by comparing it to similar rocks and fossils of known ages. Absolute dating is used to determine a precise age of a fossil by using radiometric dating to measure the decay of isotopes, either within the fossil or more often the rocks associated with it.
Relative Dating The majority of the time fossils are dated using relative dating techniques. Using relative dating the fossil is compared to something for which an age is already known. For example if you have a fossil trilobite and it was found in the Wheeler Formation. The Wheeler Formation has been previously dated to approximately million year old, so we know the trilobite is also about million years old.
Scientists can use certain types of fossils referred to as index fossils to assist in relative dating via correlation. Index fossils are fossils that are known to only occur within a very specific age range. Typically commonly occurring fossils that had a widespread geographic distribution such as brachiopods, trilobites, and ammonites work best as index fossils.
If the fossil you are trying to date occurs alongside one of these index fossils, then the fossil you are dating must fall into the age range of the index fossil.
Sometimes multiple index fossils can be used. In a hypothetical example, a rock formation contains fossils of a type of brachiopod known to occur between and million years. The same rock formation also contains a type of trilobite that was known to live to million years ago. Since the rock formation contains both types of fossils the ago of the rock formation must be in the overlapping date range of to million years.
Studying the layers of rock or strata can also be useful. Layers of rock are deposited sequentially. If a layer of rock containing the fossil is higher up in the sequence that another layer, you know that layer must be younger in age. This can often be complicated by the fact that geological forces can cause faulting and tilting of rocks. Absolute Dating Absolute dating is used to determine a precise age of a rock or fossil through radiometric dating methods. This uses radioactive minerals that occur in rocks and fossils almost like a geological clock.
So, often layers of volcanic rocks above and below the layers containing fossils can be dated to provide a date range for the fossil containing rocks. The atoms in some chemical elements have different forms, called isotopes. These isotopes break down at a constant rate over time through radioactive decay. By measuring the ratio of the amount of the original parent isotope to the amount of the daughter isotopes that it breaks down into an age can be determined.
We define the rate of this radioactive decay in half-lives. If a radioactive isotope is said to have a half-life of 5, years that means after 5, years exactly half of it will have decayed from the parent isotope into the daughter isotopes. Then after another 5, years half of the remaining parent isotope will have decayed.
While people are most familiar with carbon dating, carbon dating is rarely applicable to fossils. Carbon, the radioactive isotope of carbon used in carbon dating has a half-life of years, so it decays too fast.
It can only be used to date fossils younger than about 75, years. Potassium on the other hand has a half like of 1. This makes it ideal for dating much older rocks and fossils.