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Fossilfinder: a citizen science approach to fossil discovery


The University of Bradford, in collaboration with the Turkana Basin Institute, has begun a countdown to recruit an army of "citizen scientists" to help discover fossils and ancient artefacts using a unique online platform - Fossilfinder.

Fossilfinder is a pioneering project, funded in part by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, enabling amateur fossil hunters to be part of a scientific team and make a direct contribution to developing knowledge about prehistory.

The project aims to collect high resolution aerial imagery from a series of areas across fossil-bearing deposits of the Turkana Basin in northern Kenya. These images have been captured using a range of novel aerial imaging platforms developed by the Bradford team.

The images have been uploaded onto an interactive website allowing online fossil hunters to examine the ground in minute detail. They can then mark on the images any objects of interest including fossil fragments or stone tools. These findings are submitted for the team to use in the reconstruction of past environments and landscapes.

Dr Randolph Donahue, principal investigator of the project, said: “The Lake Turkana basin is world famous for the discoveries of numerous fossils of human ancestors as well as the many other animals that lived in this region over the past four million years. Gradual erosion of the semi-arid badlands exposes fossils from the sediments that were laid down by ancient rivers and lakes.”

Project Manager Dr Adrian Evans, of the University of Bradford, said: “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’ to find new fossils as primary research data.

“The project is enabled by a step-change in imaging technology which allows sub-millimetre ground resolution to be captured. Using this technology we can capture images over fossil bearing landscapes at an unprecedented scale. That will help us appreciate the zones of geological change, variations in past environment, and pinpoint more closely areas where interesting fossils are likely to appear.”

Dr Louise Leakey, of the Turkana Basin Institute and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, said: “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.”

Searching through thousands of high definition images on Fossilfinder, a citizen scientist is engaged directly in research and is provided with an experience and an understanding of the difficulties and challenges of finding fossil evidence used to interpret the past.

Fossilfinder is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of its ‘Digital Transformations’ strategic theme. Professor Andrew Prescott of the University of Glasgow, the AHRC’s Theme Leader Fellow for Digital Transformations, commented: “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 artefacts 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.”

View Fossilfinder

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