Louisiana fish kill destroys fossil formation ideas

by Shaun Doyle

In mid-September 2010, a massive fish kill was reported in Louisiana amid fears it was caused by the catastrophic BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in April.1 After a thorough investigation, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries concluded the fish kill was caused by low oxygen levels from low tides and high water temperatures.1 However, note what happened to the fish. They all ended up floating on top of the water in a vast mat of sea creatures (figure 1). This colossal kill can help clear up some basic misconceptions about the formation of fossils, something that has far reaching implications.

Most people think fossils take millions of years to form. They get this idea from what is taught in textbooks and museums, which use drawings depicting how fossils form, such as figure 2. The story starts by showing a dead animal sinking to the bottom of the ocean, where it lies on the sediment waiting to be fossilized. Slowly, more sediment accumulates and gradually buries the dead creature over millions of years until it’s completely covered. The sediment then hardens and fossilizes the dead creature inside it. The land is uplifted, the sediment eroded until the fossil is exposed after more millions of years, ready for scientists to dig up.

This massive fish kill in Louisiana illustrates why this popular story is wrong. The thousands of sea creatures are floating—they’re not lying on the riverbed waiting to be covered in sediment and fossilized. The scavengers and bacteria don’t leave these sorts of kills alone. Under such conditions they break down the corpses very quickly, leaving practically nothing to sink and fossilize….

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