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Parks Preserve Fossils
Why should the
National Park Service preserve fossils?
mission of the National Park Service is to preserve America’s
special places for all Americans, including our future generations.
This mission includes allowing people to come visit, enjoy and learn
from these places, while preserving the resources that help to make
these places so wonderful. The National Park Service protects wild
and scenic rivers, mountains and glaciers, caves and canyons; it
protects famous homes and battlefields of historic past, and it
protects sites that contain keys to our distant, prehistoric past.
Among these are sites containing the remains of early human cultures
and sites containing fossils of ancient plants and animals that
lived and died millions of years before the first humans set foot on
Fossils are the evidence of
life in the past. They may be the shells of marine life from
ancient seas, the bones of a mastodon, petrified trees from a
prehistoric forest, or the print of a dinosaur. Each and every
fossil represents information about the ancient past that can never
be revisited. We can only study the past through the evidence we
see today, such as fossils and geologic formations. The fossils we
find today can never be replaced. Once they are lost or destroyed,
they are gone forever. Fossils are American treasures, and the
National Park Service has many parks that are dedicated to
The diversity of the fossil
record in the National Park System is great. It includes microscopic
organisms representative of some of the earliest life on the planet
from the Precambrian to the bones of mammoths that lived during the
Pleistocene. Eight National Park System units were established
specifically for the protection of important fossils, but the
geologic history of plants and animals is preserved in as many as
146 units. Plant remains may be represented by pollen, algae mounds
called stromatolites, impressions of leaves, or huge petrified tree
trunks. Fossils of invertebrate and vertebrate animals occur in
parks and include shells, bones, and teeth. Many times the evidence
of past life is based on trace fossils such as dinosaur tracks,
burrows of extinct bear-dogs, eggshell fragments, or the dung of the
giant ground sloth. Each type of fossil in its own way contributes
to an understanding of the history of life on Earth.
The National Park Service
preserves these treasures of the past so that they may be enjoyed by
all, now and in the future. Unfortunately, not every person is able
to visit all of the national parks. The National Park Service is
dedicated to educating the public about these resources, so that
they might appreciate and enjoy them, even if they cannot visit them
should we create National Parks instead of just putting fossils in
natural processes are constantly eroding rocks and exposing buried
fossils. This erosion may be physical like rain, running streams
streams, the seasonal freezing and thawing of rocks, or wind.
Although erosion is critical for the exposure of fossils, it can
also eventually cause their destruction. The Park Service monitors
the areas containing fossils to minimize their loss or destruction.
activities can also threaten fossils. Not all types of rocks are
hard enough to withstand the impact of hiking. Many types of rocks
that contain fossils easily break under the weight of footsteps.
Park visitors who have left designated hiking trails may
inadvertently damage fossils and increase erosion in fossiliferous
areas. Occasionally, people have even intentionally vandalized the
Fossils that are preserved
in national parks cannot be taken for private use. To collect
fossils from a park, a paleontologist requires a permit from the
park. Fossils collected from parks are usually placed in a museum
where the public will still have the ability to come see and learn
from them. In recent years, however, the illegal collection of
fossils from public lands has increased. The unauthorized
possession of fossils from parklands is subject to fines and other
By creating a national park
in an area rich in fossils, we are preserving not only the fossils,
but the environment of where the fossil was. There are usually
other fossils in the same place that are protected. Not only
fossils but the context in which they are found is important. The
type of rock in which a fossil is preserved, its position in the
sequence of rocks, its association with other fossils, and its
geographic location provide important information for understanding
the history of the specimen, and the ancient environment in which it
lived. All of this information must be recorded at the time the
fossil is collected. National parks protect the information about
the environment that existed when the plant or animal died. Many
questions can only be answered by protecting the area where a fossil
- How old is the fossil?
- What other plants and animals lived at the
- What kind of habitat did the organisms live
in? Was the environment ocean, grasslands or forest?
- Was the earth warm or cold? Wet or dry?
- What types of adaptations might organisms
have needed to live in this habitat?
- What theories can we develop about the why
animals bodies were shaped as they were? How might their anatomy
have been an adaptation to their habitat?
- What can we learn about how the ecosystems
- How have plants and animals changed over
- How has the earth changed over time?
With time, the tools and
technology available to paleontologists improves and scientists can
learn more from a site today than they could 30 years ago. We
assume that 30 years from now, scientists will be able to learn even
more from the sites than they can today. By preserving these areas,
scientists can come back to a fossil bed and learn more answers to
the questions listed above. If the area is not protected, we cannot
know today what information may be lost tomorrow. A great deal
about the history of life remains buried in the Earth. The fossils
throughout the National Park System play an important role in the
telling of that story.
Parks protect more than the
fossil remains of species that went extinct in prehistoric times,
parks also protect species that are endangered today. Many species
are threatened with extinction in the United States and around the
world. Many of these species live in habitat protected by the
National Park Service. Our hope is that through the preservation
efforts of the National Park Service and others, many of these
species will survive, and we will not have only their fossils to
look back upon.