I find that when ever I learn of a new fossil, the age of said fossil is always mentioned. This perplexes me given how intuitively rare it seems to have radioactive material to date a formation. I know that Paleontologists also use other fossils in the formation to date a new fossils however surely there have been cases where we have found new fossils that we have no way of knowing the age?
The short answer is no, because we always have some constraint of how old something is. Sometimes we have fossils with large date error bars, and often we do not know for how long that species existed. A large date range constraint in some cases, like archeology, might not be useful. If the specimen is taken without noting the location it was taken from, then we have no context to date it, which is a big reason not to plunder paleontological sites.
For dating a fossil, the context of the rock layer, other fossils, cross-cutting units, and location is key. Geologists must use a combination of absolute and relative age dating techniques. Geologists examine the rock layer from which the fossil was found and compare that to other rock layers that stratigraphically correlate to it. They use basic relative dating approaches, including:
- Principle of Superposition: older layers on bottom, younger layers on top
- Principle of Cross Cutting Relationships: if a feature (like igneous intrusions and faults) cuts through a layer, then that feature is younger than the layer
- Principle of Original Horizontality: Layers are deposited in a horizontal fashion
- Principle of Lateral Continuity: Layers are general deposited in a laterally continuous manner until they pinch out; if you see a canyon and similar layer on either side, you can assume it was previously continuous and the canyon is younger.
- Principle of Faunal Succession: The presence or absence groups of fossils can be used to hone in on the time period
There are a wide variety of absolute dating techniques, each with its own time and medium constraints. Radiometric dating, fission track dating, and paleomagnetic approaches are typically restricted to igneous rocks. For radiometric dating, only a small quantity of isotopes are needed for a measurable date. Igneous rocks contain usable quantities of minerals like zircon that are good at holding atoms of uranium and other elements useful in for the absolute age-dating technique. Geologists use absolute dates of rocks that can be dated in combination with relative dating techniques to constrain the age of a rock layer that cannot be dated with absolute techniques.
Fossil morphology must also be considered to determine if you are really looking at a new species or just a special case of a previously identified species. Sometimes, evolutionary approaches can be applied to help place the specimen into a timeline.
Figuring out the temporal extent of a species takes more time and multiple discoveries of samples of that species to better constrain that extent.
A combination of approaches and techniques can help paleontologists be detectives in determining the age of specimen. Like other sciences, geology is social in the sense that it relies on the culmination of the work of many, with multiple lines of complementary pieces of information, to come to a conclusive age.
Here are some great articles related to your question:
- DiMaggio, E. and Tripathy-Lang, A., 2019, How Do Scientists Date Fossils?: Smithsonian Magazine, online: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-do-scientists-date-fossils-180972391/
- Peppe, D. J. and Deino, A. L., 2013, Dating Rocks and Fossils Using Geologic Methods: Nature Education Knowledge vol. 4, no. 10:1, online: https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/dating-rocks-and-fossils-using-geologic-methods-107924044/
Here is an example of an "undatable" fossil, where the age could "only" be constrained by 2 million years:
- Yong, E., 2015, Why Don't We Know the Age of the New Ancient Human?: The Atlantic, online: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/09/why-dont-we-know-the-age-of-the-new-human-ancestor-homo-naledi/405148/
Yes it does happen, and we know when and why it happens.
The most common reason is because of bad collection methods. Some times laypeople collect fossils without recording where or when the collected it, in those cases the fossil has no providence and is generally useless for scientific analysis. As long as you know what rock formation a fossil comes from you have a window of time it had to come from. This is by the way why some paleontologist absolutely detest private collectors, because so often it results in these useless fossils.
Occasionally fossils are collected properly and because of unusual circumstances (say a museum being bombed in a war) collection data is lost and a fossil again becomes useless because it has no providence, this is one reason collection are encouraged to be recorded in detail in multiple locations.
there is one other circumstance, rarely you have reworked material, that is fossils that where exposed by erosion in the distance past then reburied, This is exceedingly rare, and always leaves its mark on the fossil, in that case we know the fossil is in the wrong place but may not know exactly where and thus when it comes from. Usually you can identify by finding similar fossils, but rarely the fossil so badly degraded identification is impossible.
There is always some way of dating a fossil. The problem is not so much in finding a way as in finding an accurate way. Laboratories usually have to deal with incredibly small amounts of material. Take the potassium - argon method for instance.
A volcanic tuff will not be pure potassium, it will only contain a trace. Only about one potassium atom in a thousand is the radioactive potassium 40 (half life 1,3000,000,000 years). It is therefore only useful in dating something millions of years old, no good for dating Neanderthal fossils, for example. The difficulties don't end there. Only 11% of K40 decays in a very unusual way to become Ar40, the rest decays by normal beta decay to become calcium 40.
So you can see that the procedures are so delicate and sensitive because of the minute quantities scientists have to work with that it is a wonder they get useful results at all. Such dating is often contentious as not surprisingly, like all radiometric dating, it is subject to error. Similar problems exist with regard to carbon 14, which is suited to more recent fossils like Neanderthal man.
For dating fossils as far back as the late Precambrian a new dating method called the rhenium - osmium method has recently been used, and is much more accurate for that period than previous methods, being capable of reliably dating fossils a billion years old. Previous inaccurate datings were rendered obsolete.
Fossils found in limestone cave accretions such as Raymond Dart's Taung child (a gracile australopithecine from S. Africa) are notoriously difficult to date because of the lack of stratigraphy and suitable radioactive elements.