Such studies of organ structure can be done not only on current species, but also on species that are no longer alive. How do we know that these extinct species ever existed? We know this from finding fossils (Fig. 9.10). What are fossils? Usually, when organisms die, their bodies will decompose and be lost. But every once in a while, the body or at least some parts may be in an environment that does not let it decompose completely. If a dead insect gets caught in hot mud, for example, it will not decompose quickly, and the mud will eventually harden and retain the impression of the body parts of the insect. All such preserved traces of living organisms are called fossils.
How do we know how old the fossils are? There are two components to this estimation. One is relative. If we dig into the earth and start finding fossils, it is reasonable to suppose that the fossils we find closer to the surface are more recent than the fossils we find in deeper layers. The second way of dating fossils is by detecting the ratios of different isotopes of the same element in the fossil material. It would be interesting to find out exactly how this method works!