by John Pojeta, Jr. and Dale A. Springer 
Geologic time chart
Fossil Record
Change Through Time
Darwin's Theory
Mechanism for Change
Nature of Species
Nature of Theory
Paleontology, Geology & Evolution
Dating the Fossil Record
Examples of Evolution


References Cited

Suggested Readings
About the Authors

Paleontological Society


Evolution and the Fossil Record Dating the Fossil Record (Previous Page || Next Page)

The study of the sequence of occurrence of fossils in rocks, biostratigraphy, reveals the relative time order in which organisms lived. Although this relative time scale indicates that one layer of rock is younger or older than another, it does not pinpoint the age of a fossil or rock in years. The discovery of radioactivity late in the 19th century enabled scientists to develop techniques for accurately determining the ages of fossils, rocks, and events in Earth's history in the distant past. For example, through isotopic dating we've learned that Cambrian fossils are about 540-500 million years old, that the oldest known fossils are found in rocks that are about 3.8 billion years old, and that planet Earth is about 4.6 billion years old.

Determining the age of a rock involves using minerals that contain naturally-occurring radioactive elements and measuring the amount of change or decay in those elements to calculate approximately how many years ago the rock formed. Radioactive elements are unstable. They emit particles and energy at a relatively constant rate, transforming themselves through the process of radioactive decay into other elements that are stable - not radioactive. Radioactive elements can serve as natural clocks, because the rate of emission or decay is measurable and because it is not affected by external factors.

About 90 chemical elements occur naturally in the Earth. By definition an element is a substance that cannot be broken into a simpler form by ordinary chemical means. The basic structural units of elements are minute atoms. They are made up of the even tinier subatomic particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons.

To help in the identification and classification of elements, scientists have assigned an atomic number to each kind of atom. The atomic number for each element is the number of protons in an atom. An atom of potassium (K), for example, has 19 protons in its nucleus so the atomic number for potassium is 19.

Although all atoms of a given element contain the same number of protons, they do not contain the same number of neutrons. Each kind of atom has also been assigned a mass number. That number, which is equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, identifies the various forms or isotopes of an element. The isotopes of a given element have similar or very closely related chemical properties but their atomic mass differs.

Potassium (atomic number 19) has several isotopes. Its radioactive isotope potassium-40 has 19 protons and 21 neutrons in the nucleus (19 protons + 21 neutrons = mass number 40). Atoms of its stable isotopes potassium-39 and potassium-41 contain 19 protons plus 20 and 22 neutrons respectively.

Radioactive isotopes are useful in dating geological materials, because they convert or decay at a constant, and therefore measurable, rate. An unstable radioactive isotope, which is the 'parent' of one chemical element, naturally decays to form a stable nonradioactive isotope, or 'daughter,' of another element by emitting particles such as protons from the nucleus. The decay from parent to daughter happens at a constant rate called the half-life. The half-life of a radioactive isotope is the length of time it takes for exactly one-half of the parent atoms to decay to daughter atoms. No naturally occurring physical or chemical conditions on Earth can appreciably change the decay rate of radioactive isotopes. Precise laboratory measurements of the number of remaining atoms of the parent and the number of atoms of the daughter result in a ratio that is used to compute the age of a fossil or rock in years.

Age determinations using radioactive isotopes have reached the point where they are subject to very small errors of measurement, now usually less than 1%. For example, minerals from a volcanic ash bed in southern Saskatchewan, Canada, have been dated by three independent isotopic methods (Baadsgaard, et al., 1993). The potassium/argon method gave an age of 72.5 plus or minus 0.2 million years ago (mya), a possible error of 0.27%; the uranium/lead method gave an age of 72.4 plus or minus 0.4 mya, a possible error of 0.55%; and the rubidium/strontium method gave an age of 72.54 plus or minus 0.18 mya, a possible error of 0.25%. The possible errors in these measurements are well under 1%. For comparison, 1% of an hour is 36 seconds. For most scientific investigations an error of less than 1% is insignificant.

As we have learned more, and as our instrumentation has improved, geoscientists have reevaluated the ages obtained from the rocks. These refinements have resulted in an unmistakable trend of smaller and smaller revisions of the radiometric time scale. This trend will continue as we collect and analyze more samples.

Isotopic dating techniques are used to measure the time when a particular mineral within a rock was formed. To allow assignment of numeric ages to the biologically based components of the geologic time scale, such as Cambrian...Permian...Cretaceous... Quaternary, a mineral that can be dated radiometrically must be found together with rocks that can be assigned relative ages because of the contained fossils. A classic, real-life example of using K-40/Ar-40 to date Upper Cretaceous rocks and fossils is described in Gill and Cobban (1973).

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