The Cycle of Life, Death, and Fossilization?!

“Get down everyone and feel the striations,” my dad said, demonstrating by gliding his hand over the rough rocks.  “These were created by glaciers in the last ice age between 110,000 and 11,700 years ago.”

This was part of a yearly lecture, given to me and my sisters, as we hiked across the Canadian Shield in Algonquin Park.  As we explored the park and its confines, hiking trails every day, my dad would teach us about rocks and fossils.  And as children, that is amazing, because we got to see dinosaurs!

Autumn Foliage in Algonquin Provincial Park CC BY-SA 3.0

Well, they weren’t dinosaurs.  They were older than dinosaurs – although some of the fossils we found might be from around the same time but ten year olds rarely have the expertise to make that complex judgement.  We found Paleozoic crinoids, trilobites, brachiopods, and cephalopods from about 541 Million Years – 252 Million years ago.  They lined the limestone beaches of Lake Ontario. And it was heaven for a group of children who were interested in the mysteries that the shale revealed.

My parents encouraged this continued exploration by buying me guides to rocks and fossils (which I still have). My dad taught us about rocks and how fossils were formed.  They took me to museums where I could learn more.  And most importantly, they took me to places where I could find fossils or witness archeological digs.

Even now, as an adult, I look for fossils when I am exploring new places. You can find them in the strangest of places; the sidewalks of Amsterdam, the pillars in Durham Cathedral, the countertop in my friend’s kitchen in Vienna.

Brachiopods in the Bathroom

You really do not have to go far to find fossils or interesting rocks, for that matter.  The new trend for stone countertops and tiles means that you might already have fossils in your house you just havn’t realized it yet.

My friend has a beautiful sandstone countertop in her kitchen.  The thick stone slabs cover the kitchen island and the back counter.  If you look closely you can see the soft whorls of shells and the ribs of bivalves embedded deep within the stone.

If you ever have the chance, looking at the Frosterly Marble in Durham is a worthwhile experience.  The polished limestone pillars of Durham Cathedral are crowded with crinoids.  Which means that by the end of a visit there you will be able to identify all the parts of a fossilized crinoid.  Handy information for when you see them on an Amsterdam paving stone or doorstep.

Frosterly Marble detail By Karenjc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

All you need is a handy guide for fossils.  One of my guides is from my early childhood, with my name in pink childish cursive written on the fly leaf.   Another brief guide can be found in one of my textbooks from university.  However, they can be purchased almost anywhere.

You also need to train your eye.  For this, there are museums.  The Natural History Museum in Vienna has an extensive fossil collection.  On my first visit, I was enamoured with the trilobite collection as it reminded me of summers spent on the beach, hunting for the ever-elusive complete fossil. Museums generally have the most complete fossil records and will help you to learn what to look for when you are out hunting on your own.

By Jorge Láscar from Australia – Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History of Vienna), CC BY 2.0

Nodosaurs in the News

As the history of archeology tells us, you do not need to actually be an archeologist to make important finds.  This became especially relevant in the last few weeks.  In 2011, a group of Canadian miners found a Nodosaur fossil.  It is one of the most complete Nodosaur fossils ever found and it was just put on public display.  And it is one of the most amazing dinosaur fossil finds ever.

While it is difficult to mistake this incredibly preserved 110-Million-year-old dinosaur for a stone the same cannot be said for some of the smaller fossils.  Recently, scientists announced that they have found some of the world’s oldest fossils, in Canada, on the Canadian Shield.  The microfossils were revealed in March of this year and scientists believe they are early bacteria from 3.8 Billion years ago.

And while you likely will not have the equipment to discern the tiniest of fossils it is always a good idea to know what has caught your eye in the stone.

Exploring Rocks

While we never would have found those early bacteria on our hikes on the Canadian Shield we did learn a great deal about exploring.  The thrill of discovery, even of the tiniest crinoid, is enough to keep you hunting for more.

Fossils and rocks are not just about exploring the boundaries of one’s environment but about exploring the boundaries of human knowledge. The world around us has many secrets which we can only discover by exploring its rocks.


Header image credits royalty free

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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