Fossils (from Latin fossus, literally "having been dug up") are the mineralized or otherwise preserved remains or traces (such as footprints) of animals, plants, and other organisms. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossiliferous (fossil-containing) rock formations and sedimentary layers (strata) is known as the fossil record. The study of fossils across geological time, how they were formed, and the evolutionary relationships between taxa (phylogeny) are some of the most important functions of the science of paleontology.
The relative geological time scale, as developed during the 19th century, is based largely on the fossil content of the rock strata. The development of radiometric dating techniques in the early 20th century allowed geologists to determine the absolute age of the various strata and the included fossils. Fossils range in age from the relatively recent Holocene epoch several thousands of years in age to those of the Archaean era several billions of years old.
Fossils vary in size from microscopic, such as single cells, to gigantic, such as dinosaurs. A fossil normally preserves only a portion of the deceased organism, usually that portion that was partially mineralized during life, such as the bones and teeth of vertebrates, or the chitinous exoskeletons of invertebrates. Preservation of soft tissues is exquisitely rare in the fossil record. Fossils may also consist of the marks left behind by the organism while it was alive, such as the footprint or faeces (feces) (coprolites) of a reptile. These types of fossil are called trace fossils (or ichnofossils), as opposed to body fossils. Finally, past life leaves some markers that cannot be seen but can be detected in the form of biochemical signals; these are known as chemofossils or biomarkers.
Wikipedia. Fossil. Retrieved Jan 8, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil