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These rates of decay are known, so if you can measure the proportion of parent and daughter isotopes in rocks now, you can calculate when the rocks were formed.

Because of their unique decay rates, different elements are used for dating different age ranges.

Each original isotope, called the parent, gradually decays to form a new isotope, called the daughter.

Each isotope is identified with what is called a ‘mass number’.

For example, the decay of potassium-40 to argon-40 is used to date rocks older than 20,000 years, and the decay of uranium-238 to lead-206 is used for rocks older than 1 million years.

Radiocarbon dating measures radioactive isotopes in once-living organic material instead of rock, using the decay of carbon-14 to nitrogen-14.

Relative fossil dating is different from absolute dating, in one important way: Absolute dating gives you a number (for example, carbon dating a fossil to 50 million years ago).

Relative dating puts the fossil in context---what lived before it, and what lived after. These events may be paleontological (relating to ancient life, like dinosaur extinction); geographical (relating to earth and natural environment, like eruptions and the Ice Age); and archaeological (relating to ancient society and structures, like the appearance of the Maya).

So, fossils in those layers come from the same period as well.Because of the fairly fast decay rate of carbon-14, it can only be used on material up to about 60,000 years old.Geologists use radiocarbon to date such materials as wood and pollen trapped in sediment, which indicates the date of the sediment itself.Sedimentary rock is made of particles derived from other rocks, so measuring isotopes would date the original rock material, not the sediments they have ended up in.However, there are radiometric dating methods that can be used on sedimentary rock, including luminescence dating.

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Relative fossil dating of ancient species relies upon stratigraphy.

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