WMU fossil hunters using satellites

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

dinosaur fossils

We’ve all looked for fossils at one time or another. But professional fossil hunters need a better way to find their treasures than amateurs. And two professors at Western Michigan University have come up with a system they hope will improve the field of paleontology. WMUK’s Eric Hyland reports:

At the Paleontology Lab at Moore Hall Professor Robert Anemone shows off some of his fossil finds.

“And what I have here is half of a lower jaw with all the teeth of an early carnivorous mammal. We see the sharp canine the slashing teeth of an animal that was a meat eater.”

He also shows a piece of a different kind of extinct mammal.

“We also have some nice examples of herbivorous mammals. Here’s one it’s an extinct form called Manisca theorium, but it probably would have looked much like some of the early horses of the time period.”

Anemone says success using the old way of finding fossils was often just happenstance.

“So your car breaks down and you get and you know…and you’re wandering around and you see some beautiful fossil. Or you take a wrong turn down a road you’ve never been down before and you see some good looking rocks ahead and you check them out and there’s really good fossils that way. So it’s almost like this legendary part of doing Paleontology, that you just…you go out to these basins where you know the rocks are but you don’t really know where the fossils are and you rely on hard work but also good luck.”

But there may be a better way that Anemone and Geography Professor Jay Emerson have developed. Emerson is responsible for the behind the scenes technical work on developing this new method of finding better dig sites. Basically what they do is they use a Landsat satellite image of the Earth and classify it into what they call “different land cover categories”.

“We’re not actually seeing the fossils themselves in the Landsat imagery rather we’re classifying the image into place that just have sage brush, areas that are forested, or just bare soil that are things we’re not interested in. But what we are interested in finding are areas where there are sandstone outcrops because just beneath these layers of sandstone is this mudstone that tends to have the fossils in it.”

Emerson went along on one trip to Anemone’s work site, in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin. Emerson hoped to better understand how his maps would be used and what exactly Anemone was looking for. Archeology has used similar satellite mapping to assist them in their finds, but now Paleontology will have its own version of satellite maps to assist them in their search. This collaboration between Geography and Paleontology is new for these fields especially with the depth being experimented with here. Emerson explains how he also saw the serendipitous nature to fossil finding and thinks that Geographical Studies will help out.

“We’re trying to add a little bit more analytical rigor to it, to narrow down and focus efforts rather than doing a generalized search.”

Their idea was inspired by one of their graduate students, who went to Wyoming to assist Emerson and Anemone. This student worked on a project that would be the beginnings of the predictive model for finding fossil locations.

“There’s no way we’re going to find fossils from our computer desktops. But we’re using the computer technology, the technology from geography, remote sensing, GIS, we’re using it to allow us to search in a more smart fashion when we go out to the field and do the hard work of looking for fossils on the ground.”

In recent months Anemone and Emerson have been using this new system to figure out where to dig when they go back to Wyoming this summer.

“The plan is to return to the field during the month of July 2012 and go to some of these regions that this model has picked out, and hopefully we will work long and hard and walk a lot of the areas in these particular places and hopefully we will find some productive localities. That’s certainly the plan.”

After a recent Paleontology conference in Las Vegas many of their fellow colleagues wanted to try this predictive model themselves, even before its official field test.

For more information related to dinosaurs, visit rareresource.com.


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