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Would You Like to Become a Fossil?

Looking at the footprints on the beach, thinking about whether it is still there tomorrow, a peculiar question struck me: when I die, am I going to leave any traces behind in the fossil record?

Fossils are not just bones, and they can be parts of an organism’s actual form, for example, a skeleton or carbonized plant remains. Fossils can also be an evidence that a living creature passed that way long ago, such as footprints or idle twirls left by a twig floating along the river bottom. Or, fossils can also be something like the “Blue Lake rhino”, which is a 15-million-year-old mold of a two-horned rhino that was created when lava was poured into the lake and surrounded the rhino’s body and then cooled down.


The left image is the mold of the Blue Lake rhino; the right image is the corresponding simulated scenario figure. Image source: marlinpeterson.com; spokaneoutdoors.com


Most species became a fossil by accident. The footprints along the Park Avenue, as well as my sandal impressions, might become preserved in a petrified slab for the future paleontologists to mull over. However, if you do want to see that happens, the tracks must have to keep their form—probably given a little support by morning moisture and allow new sediment cover them completely. This is how early Jurassic dinosaur footprints discovered outside Arches may have formed, back to the age when Utah was covered by huge sand dunes.


Can footprints become fossil some day in the future? The rocks in Arches National Park preserved footprints from ancient living creatures. Image source: beautifulwildlifegarden.com


If you give me options, I would rather leave an intact body fossil. Of course, my tracks across a desert could record my come and go through the soles of the footwear, but I personally relish the idea of leaving a whole skeleton behind, or at least parts of it.

Go without a coffin.

Taphonomy is the study of long-term postmortem history or organisms, so reversely, I might be able to enhance my odds of winding up as a skeletal remnant of my present form with its help.

After research on taphonomy, I learned two things. Firstly, I need to go without a coffin. Although it seems to be contradictory to traditions, I would get myself buried by sediment and keep myself in a safe place away from the various organisms that can decay my body after death.

More importantly, I have to carefully choose the position to wind up. To become a fossil, I need to be buried, meaning I should find a place undergoing active deposition. This is the reason why the vast majority of fossils are discovered in sedimentary rock—vestiges of rivers, lakes, seas and dune-pocked deserts. We know almost nothing about animals that lived on mountains or other habitats that underwent erosion.

Rapid buried myself should be able to resist the destructive actions of scavengers. I suppose that even scraps of my bone and flesh could end up in the feces of those scavengers, they still count as parts of the fossil record. And again, I prefer to stay intact relatively.

Scavengers are not the only destructive groups that I worry about. My body will also endure an entire gauntlet of ecological recyclers ranging from fungi, bacteria, burrowing insects to plant roots, before I can see a hope of becoming a fossil. Therefore, even I’m interested in interring myself on a floodplain and under tons of fine-grained sediment, there is no guarantee that the natural cleanup crew will not put my bodily resources to their own interest.

Desert of volcano are good places to die.

There are more sedimentary scenes. The long-term history of my bones would be influenced by different kinds of sediment and other aspects of the environment. If I decide to choose a sandy river channel, them my skeleton might be tumbled to various places, leaving behind a perplexing smattering of isolated scarps and bones, which is out of my expectation.

There are some bonus to be buried in a desert: my dried corpse may become a home to beetles or other insects that burrow in bones and their circuitous pathways could record permanently on my bones—what a pleasure! I would expect a similar outcome if I bury myself in deep sea: when sharks and crabs had their fill, my skeletons might become a warm home for bone-eating snot-flower worms that rely their peculiar life cycles on the skeletons of whales or other benthic bonanzas. The bazaar organisms create fossils within fossils.

If I want to keep some hair and soft tissues in addition to my bones, it might be a good choice to be buried in fresh volcanic ash. These kind of deposits have yielded large quantities of feathered dinosaurs and Mesozoic mammals with halos of fur around them. But there is one thing that disappoints me: even fresh volcanic ash could not preserve my funny printed T-shirt, and anyhow, I would wear it to my grave in hope of making a future paleontologist smirk.

Or maybe in the muck.

After weighing all my available options carefully, finally I decide to follow the example of Archaeopteryx and sink in oxygen-depleted muck. The early bird’s remains had been settled at the bottom of an old lagoon for over 150 million years, when Europe was an archipelago and the ocean floor’s anoxic condition was such hostile that even bacteria would not settle down. The preserved, beautiful bodies of fish, crustaceans, leathery-winged pterosaurs, and Archaeopteryx came down through the sons and became some of the most gorgeous natural arts even seen.


Archaeopteryx knows how to die in a most stylish way. The early bird died in a special condition, resulting a HD fossil. Image source:James L. Amos, National Geographic

However, even the perfect burial does not guarantee discovery. Millions of year later, oceans will rise and fall, and the continents will shift. Even if my skeleton do become a part of fossil record, it might be positioned at somewhere totally unreachable for future explorers. Even if I settled down at a place close to the earth’s surface, my skeletons might be corrode or destroyed. Or, there might even be no so-called explorers in the future.

This is why every discovery of a fossil is a joyous occasion. In the face of so much destructive potential, fragments of the past have survived so long and waited to be discovered.

ReferenceNationalGeographic, Tips on How to Become a Fossil