Online fossil hunters wanted: Citizen Science Project seeks help to discover prehistoric fossils
If you have ever wished to be a part of an adventurous archaeology team finding hidden treasures and long-lost fossils from our prehistoric past, now is your chance to get in on the action.
A new “citizen science project” is seeking volunteers to use an interactive website to spot undiscovered fossils in a prehistoric, fossil-rich region in Kenya. There is no need to travel to Africa or sift through mountains of soil to make groundbreaking discoveries, as this search can be done right at home with a computer.
The FossilFinder project is a new volunteer-driven, online tool that involves combing through a database of a million high-resolution images of the arid Turkana Basin in Kenya to find surface-level fossils (ranging from mammal bones to shells or ancient hominin remains), and promising locations for archaeologists to explore in person.
Far from being overwhelming, the FossilFinder project website has been set up simply and with clear instructions, breaking the search down into small, manageable tasks. A public volunteer on the website can call up a random photograph, rate the quality of the image, and then report any fossils they detect. Users are trained to identify a fossil or fossil fragment, then mark any they’ve spotted on the images.
The interface is easy to use. Credit: FossilFinder.org
Such searches cannot be done effectively by any one person, or even a computerized system on its own, says Dr. Andrew Wilson of the University of Bradford to BBC News.
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BBC News reports, “Their first tranche of photos covers several square kilometers of ground at a resolution of 3mm per pixel, including large rectangular areas and long strips of land deliberately chosen to criss-cross important locations in the basin.”
To obtain the high-resolution images of the very minute details on the soil surface, archaeologists used specialized cameras mounted on drones, kites, and other devices.
The project was set up jointly by the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya and the University of Bradford , UK. The team of researchers are looking for community volunteer help to gather data (and hopefully fossils) to further the understanding of the geology and past environment of the area.
An example photo shows the fossil jawbone of an extinct crocodile. Credit: Fossilfinder.org
Adrian Evans, project manager at Bradford University said in a press release, “This is a really exciting project that will allow enthusiasts who can’t get to those remote places to be fully involved as ‘citizen scientists’ to find new fossils as primary research data.
“The project is enabled by a step-change in imaging technology which allows sub-millimeter ground resolution to be captured. Using this technology we can capture images over fossil bearing landscape at an unprecedented scale.”
There is a social aspect of the site, so volunteers can communicate with others and get support and feedback on the examinations. Any would-be fossil hunters can start examining plots immediately, but the volunteer needs to sign in if any credit for discoveries is desired.
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Turkana Basin, the Cradle of Mankind
The Turkana Basin, stretching from northern Kenya into southern Ethiopia, is known as the ‘cradle of mankind’, existing as a pre-historic center for early hominids. Many fossils recovered from Turkana Basin and Lake Turkana have turned out to be of major importance in the study of human origins and evolution.
The landscape of fossil-rich Lake Turkana, Kenya. Wikimedia Commons
Some 20,000 fossil specimens have been collected from the region. Anthropological digs have led to the discovery of highly significant fossilized remains, most notably, the skeleton of the Turkana Boy, (or Nariokotome Boy), and primitive stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago.
“Turkana Boy” (Homo ergaster) was discovered in the fossil-rich Turkana Basin. Credit: Senckenberg Research Institute
Professor Andrew Prescott of University of Glasgow notes in the press release, “Fossilfinder illustrates how digital technologies enable the public to become more closely engaged with cutting-edge humanities research. 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.”