Dating rocks and fossils using radioisotopes
The Wheeler Formation has been previously dated to approximately 507 million year old, so we know the trilobite is also about 507 million years old.But, how can we determine how old a rock formation is, if it hasn’t previously been dated?Using relative dating the fossil is compared to something for which an age is already known.For example if you have a fossil trilobite and it was found in the Wheeler Formation.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. In a hypothetical example, a rock formation contains fossils of a type of brachiopod known to occur between 410 and 420 million years.Absolute dating is used to determine a precise age of a fossil by using radiometric dating to measure the decay of isotopes, either within the fossil or more often the rocks associated with it.The majority of the time fossils are dated using relative dating techniques.
Relative dating is used to determine a fossils approximate age by comparing it to similar rocks and fossils of known ages.Studying the layers of rock or strata can also be useful. 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.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.
The same rock formation also contains a type of trilobite that was known to live 415 to 425 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 415 to 420 million years.