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Fossil Finder wants amateur archaeologists for online sleuthing

A new interactive website is enlisting citizen scientists to scour high-resolution images from fossil-rich Kenya in hopes their sightings can help reconstruct prehistoric worlds.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

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There may be treasures hidden here. Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Ever dream of pulling an ancient jawbone from a hidden cave somewhere? A new interactive website could help you realize your archaeological aspirations.

The site, Fossil Finder, seeks volunteers to comb through its database of images from Kenya's Turkana Basin, where numerous fossils of our human ancestors, as well as a range of other animals dating back millions of years, have been found.

Where trained fossil hunters traverse on foot searching for fragments and artifacts, online fossil hunters are being asked to comb through a huge number of high-resolution aerial images taken at several fossil-rich sites in the African basin. "We quite literally have no idea what we will find as we walk. So we're asking you to become an explorer and to observe and record what you see in the surface images that we present you, just as we would be doing if we were on the ground," says the site, which launched Tuesday.

Volunteers classify the images by quality, identifying them as "OK to study," "blurry," "too dark" and so forth; assess the density of the surface rubble in the photos; and cite any specific types of rocks they may recognize. They then get to the exciting part -- examining the digital ground in minute detail and marking objects of interest, such as fossil bones or shells or stone tools (for the many cases where it's tough to tell, there's the "may be something" option). It's hoped such findings will help scientists reconstruct past environments.

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Think you spot something of note? Say so. Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

There's a social element to the project, too, as Fossil Finder participants can chat about specific photos and what they see (or think they might see).

"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," project manager Adrian Evans, a post-doctoral research fellow in archaeology at the UK's University of Bradford, said in a statement.

Fossil Finder, which is powered by the citizen science platform Zooniverse, is a collaboration between the University of Bradford and the Turkana Basin Institute, a nonprofit founded by well-known paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey that supports researchers exploring the basin, where natural forces have aligned to make the region an ideal one for fossil preservation.

The University of Bradford developed aerial-imaging platforms employed by the project that aim to produce pictures with a ground resolution 100 times that of Google Maps and other top-quality satellite images. Photos of the basin were shot using a variety of aerial platforms, including drones and kites.

"Using this technology we can capture images over fossil-bearing landscapes at an unprecedented scale," Evans said. "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."

The first batch of images uploaded to the Fossil Finder site capture deposits dating back 4 million years, and scrolling through and classifying them brings a sense of possibility likely to entice those intrigued by natural history. (Wait, is that just a twig or could it possibly be a bone fragment?) Future images on the site will date back even further, which means some lucky science sleuth could, just maybe, chance upon a dinosaur deposit.