When you go to the museum and see a massive dinosaur standing before you, it might be tempting to believe that this huge replica is a real dinosaur that was recovered from some frozen fossilized state. That misconception is even more common when you see entire skeletons standing erect as though an entire dinosaur simply shed its skin and flesh leaving the bones there for you to look at. The idea that each of those bones is an actual fossil that was somehow knit together into a complete creature is an illusion that the museum people want you to believe.
But in fact, you are probably looking at a replica of the dinosaur skeleton and the bones that make up that replica are no doubt plaster of paris molds of real fossils. That doesn’t make the display any less interesting and educational. But it might make you feel less squeamish that there are real dinosaur bones on display like that. If you then proceed further back into the museum, you can often find real bones in cases for you to examine. These fossils were discovered at some exotic location around the world and very carefully excavated by a type of a scientist called a paleontologist. The process of how paleontologists painstakingly retrieve and transport these precious fossils for you to see in the museum is a fascinating part of science in its own right.
Those huge bones and teeth and other remands of the mighty dinosaur are often all most of us know about fossils. If you ask a child or your average man on the street what a fossil is, they might say that it is a dinosaur bone. But the definition of fossils is much more complicated than that. Learning what a fossil really is can go a long way toward giving you an appreciation for this fascinating area of scientific inquiry.
There are other kinds of fossils than just a bone of long deceased animal. It is true that some of the most important archeological discoveries of fossils that have yielded volumes of data about the past were actual remains of ancient creatures that died and whose bodies were somehow fossilized for future scientists to study. But scientists can learn a great deal about other kinds of fossils as well. Many fossils are plant life from ancient times. While not as likely to inspire a movie as Tyrannosaurus Rex, much can be learned about our planet and the environment that existed millions of years ago from plant life fossils that are found in rocks and other common archeological dig areas.
In addition to plants and animals, many fossil discoveries that are taken by paleontologists include remands of creatures long past like footprints, dung or other organic matter that is left behind in fossilized form. Many fossils are little more than imprints of an ancient insect or plant life. But paleontologists are just as grateful for these fossils as they are for a full Brontosaurus jaw because every clue to how life existed millions of years ago help science understand our world a little bit better. And that benefits all of us.