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Drones and Fossils: Citizen Archaeologists Make Discoveries From Home

Sep 13, 2015 08:43 PM EDT
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When it comes to excavating fossils, you can put down your hammers, picks and dust brushes. A new website, Fossil Finder, has made it possible for people to search for fossil remains hidden in satellite images taken by unmanned drones, all from the comfort of their own home.

"In this exciting new approach, we are asking for help to document the fossil bearing landscapes, which will assist us in the reconstruction of past environments. This partnership between the public and the scientific team will be transformative to our research. More eyes, more information, more discoveries." Dr. Louise Leakey, of the Turkana Basin Institute, said in a news release.

The Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya and the University of Bradford, UK, developed the Fossil Finder program with the help of the British Museum, the Fragmented Heritage Project and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). They hope to recruit citizen archeologists to help them find bones in Africa's Turkana Basin, which is located in northern Kenya.

According to the release, this area is considered to be a fossil hotspot. Along the east side of Lake Turkana, where the first survey was taken, fossil remains can be seen on the surface, having been exposed over time by erosion. However, this area also has very hot temperatures and rugged landscapes, so field expeditions are not the researchers' first choice.

That's where the high-resolution aerial images captured by both drones and kites come into play. After the images are collected, they are posted on the Fossil Finder website. Users can then login to view them and to classify surface features and identify exposed fossils. This program is free and requires that the users partake in a training when they register.

"This is a really exciting project that will allow enthusiasts who can't get to these remote places to be fully involved as 'citizen scientists,' finding new fossils as primary research data," Dr. Adrian Evans, project manager from the University of Bradford, said in a statement.  

This not only allows fossils to be identified before eroding away completely, but also could lead to more significant discoveries, because more people can view images of the area. After fossils are discovered in the images, Fossil Finder catalogs the remains for scientists to review and decide if they want to endure the harsh conditions to collect them.

"Fossil Finder illustrates how digital technologies enable the public to become more closely engaged with cutting-edge humanities research," explained Andrew Prescott, a professor from the University of Glasgow and AHRC's Theme Leader Fellow for Digital Transformations, said in the release. "We all now have the opportunity to explore and understand artifacts which enable us to understand who we are and where we come from. I will be taking part, and I hope many others will join in as well."

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