How do scientists determine the age of dinosaur bones?

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Dating Sedimentary Rock

An eagle flies over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, April 5, 2007. You can see the layers of sedimentary rock
An eagle flies over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, April 5, 2007. You can see the layers of sedimentary rock

The most widely known form of radiometric dating is carbon-14 dating. This is what archaeologists use to determine the age of human-made artifacts. But carbon-14 dating won't work on dinosaur bones. The half-life of carbon-14 is only 5,730 years, so carbon-14 dating is only effective on samples that are less than 50,000 years old. Dinosaur bones, on the other hand, are millions of years old -- some fossils are billions of years old. To determine the ages of these specimens, scientists need an isotope with a very long half-life. Some of the isotopes used for this purpose are uranium-238, uranium-235 and potassium-40, each of which has a half-life of more than a million years.

Unfortunately, these elements don't exist in dinosaur fossils themselves. Each of them typically exists in igneous rock, or rock made from cooled magma. Fossils, however, form in sedimentary rock -- sediment quickly covers a dinosaur's body, and the sediment and the bones gradually turn into rock. But this sediment doesn't typically include the necessary isotopes in measurable amounts. Fossils can't form in the igneous rock that usually does contain the isotopes. The extreme temperatures of the magma would just destroy the bones.

So to determine the age of sedimentary rock layers, researchers first have to find neighboring layers of Earth that include igneous rock, such as volcanic ash. These layers are like bookends -- they give a beginning and an end to the period of time when the sedimentary rock formed. By using radiometric dating to determine the age of igneous brackets, researchers can accurately determine the age of the sedimentary layers between them.

Using the basic ideas of bracketing and radiometric dating, researchers have determined the age of rock layers all over the world. This information has also helped determine the age of the Earth itself. While the oldest known rocks on Earth are about 3.5 billion years old, researchers have found zircon crystals that are 4.3 billion years old [source: USGS]. Based on the analysis of these samples, scientists estimate that the Earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old. In addition, the oldest known moon rocks are 4.5 billion years old. Since the moon and the Earth probably formed at the same time, this supports the current idea of the Earth's age.

You can learn more about fossils, dinosaurs, radiometric dating and related topics by reading through the links on the next page.