Major find sites for fossilised plants and shells in Iceland.
Geologically speaking, Iceland is still a very young country, and there are therefore fewer fossils here than in many other countries. No skeletons of giant land animals have been found in Iceland, but the fossilised remains of plants and sea creatures can be found scattered around the island (see map).
The oldest fossils in Iceland are around 15 million years old. They come from the epoch in the Earth's history known as the Miocene, which began almost 24 million years ago and lasted until the arrival of the Pliocene around 5.3 million years ago, the final epoch of the Tertiary period.
These oldest fossils are of plants rather than of sea organisms: impressions of leaves, carbonised plant remains, pollen grains, compressed logs and lignite coal. Such fossils have mainly been found at locations along the outermost edge of the West Fjords. Sedimentary strata to the southeast grow ever younger as they approach the volcanic zone. In Mókollsdalur Valley in the district of Strandasýsla, where fossils of both plants and insects have been found, strata are a mere 8-9 million years old.
Miocene fossils reveal a very different landscape than the one we are accustomed to today. The fossilised remains of coniferous trees such as Glyptostrobus europaeus and Sequoia abietina and beeches such as Fagus friedrichii suggest that tall, lush forests once grew in Iceland despite its northerly latitude.
The Tjörnes sequence in Northern Iceland provides a stratigraphic record of the meeting of the Tertiary and Quaternary periods. Here, one can find an abundance of petrified sea creatures – mainly shells and conches, but also seal bones. These are preserved in sedimentary strata that accumulated on the ocean floor, hardened and rose with time above sea level.
Late Pleistocene and Holocene strata also contain shells, conches and foraminifera. These strata are often unconsolidated, making it easy to collect fossils found in them. In some areas, sediment has consolidated, particularly where it is rich in tephra. The Fossvogur strata in Reykjavík are a good example of consolidated strata from the Late Pleistocene in which fossils have been preserved.
Icelandic law prohibits the removal of fossils from the location at which they were found except with the express permission of the Ministry for the Environment. Iceland's fossils represent an important and unique part of its geological heritage. Removing or disturbing fossils can damage them, and important information about their locality is lost.