Fossils of the Western US

Fossils (from the Latin word fossilis, meaning “dug up”) are the remains or traces of organisms that lived in the geologic past (older than the last 10,000 years), now preserved in the Earth’s crust. Most organisms never become fossils, but instead decompose after death, and any hard parts are broken into tiny fragments. In order to become fossilized, an organism must be buried quickly before it is destroyed by erosion or eaten by other organisms. This is why fossils are found almost exclusively in sediment and sedimentary rocks. Igneous rocks, which form from cooling magma or lava, and metamorphic rocks, which have been altered by heat and pressure, are unlikely to contain fossils (but may, under special circumstances).

Since rapid burial in sediment is important for the formation of fossils, most fossils form in marine environments, where sediments are more likely to accumulate. Fossils come in many types. Those that consist of an actual part of an organism, such as a bone, shell, or leaf, are known as body fossils; those that record the actions of organisms, such as footprints and burrows, are called trace fossils. Body fossils may be preserved in a number of ways. These include preservation of the original mineral skeleton of an organism, mineral replacement (chemical replacement of the material making up a shell by a more stable mineral), recrystallization (replacement by a different crystal form of the same chemical compound), permineralization (filling of empty spaces in a bone or shell by minerals), and molds and casts, which show impressions of the exterior or interior of a shell. Chemical fossils are chemicals produced by an organism that leave behind an identifiable trace in the geologic record. Chemical fossils provide some of the oldest evidence for life on Earth.

Index fossils are used to determine the age of many deposits that cannot be dated radiometrically. An ideal index fossil lived during a short period of time, was geographically and environ- mentally widespread, and is easy to identify. Some of the most useful index fossils are hard-shelled organisms that were once part of the marine plankton.

Paleontologists use fossils as a record of the history of life. Fossils are also extremely useful for understanding the ancient environment that existed in an area when they were alive. The study of the relationships of fossil organisms to one another and their environment is called paleoecology.

Fossils are also the most important tool for dating the rocks in which they are preserved. Because species only exist for a certain amount of time before going extinct, their fossils only occur in rocks of a certain age. The relative age of such fossils is determined by their order in the stacks of layered rocks that make up the stratigraphic record (older rocks are on the bottom and younger rocks on the top—a principle called the Law of Superposition). Such fossils are known as index fossils. The most useful index fossils are abundant, widely distributed, easy to recognize, and occur only during a narrow time span.


The “soft” tissues of an organism, such as skin, muscles, and internal organs, are typically not preserved as fossils. Exceptions to this rule occur when conditions favor rapid burial and mineralization or very slow decay. The absence of oxygen and limited disruption of the sediment by burrowing are both important for limiting decay in those deposits where soft tissues are preserved. Examples of such exceptional preservation, also called Lagerstätte, from the West include leaves and insects preserved in amber, and bones and insects preserved in asphalt at the La Brea Tar Pits. Another recently discovered example is the Indian Springs Lagerstätte exposed in the northern part of the Montezuma Range, in Esmeralda County, Nevada. This fossil assemblage includes the remains of many animals with hard (mineralized) skeletons, such as echinoderms and brachiopods, but many of these fossils also preserve non-mineralized parts, such as tentacles, gut tracts, and soft appendages.

See Chapter 1: Geologic History to learn more about accreted terranes.

Fossils also have helped geologists piece together the complicated geology of North America’s northwest coast. Fossils were one of the most important pieces of evidence that terranes had moved to assemble the edge of the continent as we now know it. For example, similar-aged but very different fossils that are now found in close geographic proximity can be explained by their host rocks having moved from their original locations. This is called paleobiogeography.

Ancient Biodiversity

Since life began on Earth more than 3.7 billion years ago, it has continuously become more abundant and complex. It wasn’t until the beginning of the Cambrian period, around 543 million years ago, that complex life—living things with cells that are differentiated for different tasks—became predominant. The diversity of life has, in general, increased through time since then. Measurements of the number of different kinds of organisms—for example, estimating the number of species alive at a given time—attempt to describe Earth’s biodiversity. With a few significant exceptions, the rate at which new species evolve is significantly greater than the rate of extinction.

Discovering Ancient Environments

The kinds of animals and plants living in a particular place depend on the local environment. The fossil record preserves not only fossil organisms, but also evidence of what their environments were like. By studying the geological and biological information recorded in a rock that contains a fossil, scientists can determine some aspects of the paleoenvironment.

Grain size and composition of the rock can tell us what type of sediment surface the animal lived on, what the water flow was like, or whether it was transported in a current. Grain size also tells us about the clarity of the water. Fine-grained rocks such as shales are made of tiny particles of silt or clay that easily remain suspended in water. Thus, a fossil found in shale might have lived in muddy or very quiet water. Filter-feeding organisms, such as clams or corals, are not usually found in muddy water because the suspended sediment can clog their filters.

Sedimentary structures, such as asymmetrical ripples and cross-beds, can indicate that the organism lived in moving water. Mud cracks or symmetrical ripples are characteristic of shoreline or intertidal environments.

Broken shells or concentrated layers of shells may indicate transportation and accumulation by waves or currents.

Color of the rock may indicate the amount of oxygen in the water. If there is not enough oxygen in the water, organic material (carbon) in sediments will not decompose, and the rock formed will be dark gray or black in color.

Figure 3.1. The history of life in relation to global and regional geological events and the fossil record of the Western US. (Time scale is not to scale.)

Figure 3.1. The history of life in relation to global and regional geological events and the fossil record of the Western US. (Time scale is not to scale.)

Most species have a lifespan of several million years; rarely do they exist longer than 10 million years. The extinction of a species is a normal event in the history of life. There are, however, intervals of time during which extinction rates are unusually high, in some cases at a rate of 10 or 100 times the normal rate. These intervals are known as mass extinctions (Figure 3.1). There were five particularly devastating mass extinctions in geologic history, and these specific mass extinction events have helped to shape life through time. Unfortunately, this is not just a phenomenon of the past—it is estimated that the extinction rate on Earth right now may be as much as 1000 times higher than normal, and that we are currently experiencing a mass extinction event.

Different fossils are found in different regions because of the presence of rocks deposited at different times and in a variety of environments. The availability of fossils from a given time period depends both on the deposition of sedimentary rocks and the preservation of these rocks through time.

Fossils of the Western US

Western rocks preserve an excellent fossil record of the history of life (Figure 3.1)—so much so, in fact, that it is impossible to describe all of it here. We will therefore highlight the major types of fossils present in most of the geologic periods represented by rocks in each state. The resources at the end of the chapter should be consulted for details, especially for identifying particular fossils you might find.