Tips on How to Become a Fossil

Pick your burial spot carefully if you want future paleontologists to find you.

Alas, poor A. sediba! Whether the hominin was of infinite jest and most excellent fancy is for paleontologists to discern.


Earlier this summer, on a break from scraping Jurassic stone off dinosaur bones at an eastern Utah quarry, I wandered through the fantastical landscape of Arches National Park. While following the short Park Avenue trail, I noticed that the burnt orange sand running down the middle of the canyon retained the footprints of previous visitors.

Looking at the footprints, thinking about how long they might last, a peculiar question struck me: When I die, will I leave any traces behind in the fossil record?

Fossils are not just bones. A fossil can be part of an organism's actual form, of course, such as a skeleton or carbonized plant remains. But fossils can also be evidence that an organism passed that way long ago, like footprints or idle twirls left by a twig floating along a river bottom. Or like the "Blue Lake rhino," a 15-million-year-old mold of a two-horned rhino that was created when lava poured into a lake, surrounded the herbivore's body, and then cooled.

For most species, becoming a fossil is an accident. Those footprints along the Park Avenue trail, with my sandal impressions among them, could become preserved in a petrified slab for some paleontologist of the future to mull over. But for that to happen, the tracks would have to keep their form - perhaps given a little support by some morning moisture - while new sediment totally covered them. That's how early Jurassic dinosaur footprints found just outside Arches might have formed, back when Utah was covered by huge sand dunes.