The Age of Dinosaurs was so many millions of years ago that it is very difficult to date exactly. Scientists use two kinds of dating techniques to work out the age of rocks and fossils. The first method is called relative dating. This considers the positions of the different rocks in sequence in relation to each other and the different types of fossil that are found in them. The second method is called absolute dating and is done by analysing the amount of radioactive decay in the minerals of the rocks. Scientists find out the age of a dinosaur fossil by dating not only the rocks in which it lies, but those below and above it.
To solve the mystery of when this human ancestor lived on Earth, we looked to nearby volcanic ash layers for answers.
State two methods of dating rocks and fossils
Working in this part of Ethiopia is quite the adventure. It is a region where 90 degrees Fahrenheit seems cool, dust is a given, water is not, and a normal daily commute includes racing ostriches and braking for camels as we forge paths through the desert. But, this barren and hostile landscape is one of the most important locations in the world for studying when and how early humans began walking upright, using tools and adapting to their changing environments.
Early on, before we had more precise means to date fossils, geologists and paleontologists relied on relative dating methods. They looked at the position of sedimentary rocks to determine order. Imagine your laundry basket-the dirty clothes you wore last weekend sit at the bottom, but today's rest on top of the pile. The concept for sedimentary rocks is the same.
Older rocks are on the bottom, younger ones are on top. Researchers also used biostratigraphy, which is the study of how fossils appear, proliferate and disappear throughout the rock record, to establish relative ages.
We still use these relative dating methods today as a first approach for dating fossils prior to assigning a numerical, or absolute, age. Scientists called geochronologists are experts in dating rocks and fossils, and can often date fossils younger than around 50, years old using radiocarbon dating.
How Do Scientists Date Fossils?
This method has been used to provide dates for all kinds of interesting material like cave rock art and fossilized poop. Unfortunately, fossils like our jawbone, as well as the dinosaurs on view in the new "Fossil Hall-Deep Time" exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural Historyare just too old for radiocarbon dating.
FOSSILS: how fossils are dated
In these cases, we have to rely on the rocks themselves. We date the rocks and by inference, we can date the fossils. The first big challenge is to find the right kind of rocks to collect for laboratory analysis.
We are fortunate that the Afar region has volcanic ash horizons in the sedimentary rock layers. In fact, just below where the fossil jawbone was discovered, our team found a new volcanic ash layer that we named the Gurumaha Tuff.
The word gurumaha in the local language means milkshake-a reflection of our mindset in the 90 degree afternoon heat. In a sense, we can think of volcanic ash layers as buried stopwatches.
When the volcano erupts the timer starts, and we use absolute dating techniques to tell the elapsed time.
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Volcanic rocks typically contain naturally radioactive minerals-our sugar cookie sprinkles. We can date these minerals using techniques based on the radioactive decay of isotopes, which occurs at known rates. Measuring isotopes typically involves lasers and mass spectrometers and sometimes even nuclear reactors.
We calculate age using the decay rate and isotope measurements, which gives us the elapsed time on our stopwatch. We successfully dated the Gurumaha Tuff to 2.
Since the jawbone eroded from above the Gurumaha Tuff, it must be younger. We calculated the jawbone is between 2.
Geochronologists have an abundance of tools at their disposal, but still, some rocks and fossils prove difficult to date. Innovations to existing dating methods are eliminating these barriers.
For example, revisions to a method called electron spin resonance allow scientists to date rare fossils, like hominin teeth, because they can directly date the fossil without visibly damaging the specimen.
In the Afar, scientists are attempting to date the actual layers from which the fossils erode, rather than relying on the presence of volcanic ash. This would more accurately tell us the age of fossil-bearing rocks, and open new field sites for exploration that lack such layers. Fossils span geologic time from hundreds to even billions of years and are discovered in many rock types and settings. Selecting a suitable dating technique is a critical step to obtaining a meaningful and accurate age.
Scientists have dated fossils found in South African caves to betweentoyears old using several different geochronometers, including optically stimulated luminescencea tool that allows us to calculate the last time cave sediments were exposed to light. Another common method, uranium-lead dating, relies on the radioactive decay of uranium and can be used to date rocks containing the oldest known fossils on Earth-older than 3.
To put that in context, the age of the Earth is 4. Scientists can use certain types of fossils referred to as index fossils to assist in relative dating via correlation. Index fossils are fossils that are known to only occur within a very specific age range.
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Typically commonly occurring fossils that had a widespread geographic distribution such as brachiopods, trilobites, and ammonites work best as index fossils. If the fossil you are trying to date occurs alongside one of these index fossils, then the fossil you are dating must fall into the age range of the index fossil.
Sometimes multiple index fossils can be used. In a hypothetical example, a rock formation contains fossils of a type of brachiopod known to occur between and million years.
The same rock formation also contains a type of trilobite that was known to live to million years ago. Since the rock formation contains both types of fossils the ago of the rock formation must be in the overlapping date range of to million years. Studying the layers of rock or strata can also be useful.
Layers of rock are deposited sequentially. If a layer of rock containing the fossil is higher up in the sequence that another layer, you know that layer must be younger in age.
This can often be complicated by the fact that geological forces can cause faulting and tilting of rocks. Absolute Dating Absolute dating is used to determine a precise age of a rock or fossil through radiometric dating methods.
This uses radioactive minerals that occur in rocks and fossils almost like a geological clock. So, often layers of volcanic rocks above and below the layers containing fossils can be dated to provide a date range for the fossil containing rocks.
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The atoms in some chemical elements have different forms, called isotopes. These isotopes break down at a constant rate over time through radioactive decay. By measuring the ratio of the amount of the original parent isotope to the amount of the daughter isotopes that it breaks down into an age can be determined.
We define the rate of this radioactive decay in half-lives. If a radioactive isotope is said to have a half-life of 5, years that means after 5, years exactly half of it will have decayed from the parent isotope into the daughter isotopes. Then after another 5, years half of the remaining parent isotope will have decayed. While people are most familiar with carbon dating, carbon dating is rarely applicable to fossils. Carbon, the radioactive isotope of carbon used in carbon dating has a half-life of years, so it decays too fast.
It can only be used to date fossils younger than about 75, years. Potassium on the other hand has a half like of 1.
This makes it ideal for dating much older rocks and fossils.