Fossils are the mineralized or otherwise preserved remains or traces (such as footprints) of animals, plants, and other organisms.
The totality of fossils and their placement in fossiliferous (fossil-containing) rock formations and sedimentary layers (strata) is known as the fossil record.
The study of fossils across geological time, how they were formed, and the evolutionary relationships between taxa (phylogeny) are some of the most important functions of the science of paleontology.
While most fossils are several thousands to several billions of years old, there is no minimum age for a fossil.
Fossils vary in size from microscopic, such as single cells, to gigantic, such as dinosaurs.
A fossil normally preserves only a portion of the deceased organism, usually that portion that was partially mineralized during life, such as the bones and teeth of vertebrates, or the chitinous exoskeletons of invertebrates.
Preservation of soft tissues is exquisitely rare in the fossil record.
Fossils may also consist of the marks left behind by the organism while it was alive, such as the footprint or feces of a reptile.
These types of fossil are called trace fossils (or ichnofossils) as opposed to body fossils.
Finally, past life leaves some markers that cannot be seen but can be detected in the form of chemical signals; these are known as chemical fossils or biomarkers.
See the following related content on ScienceDaily: