Search for fossils from the comfort of home

New citizen science website seeks help classifying photos

Fossil Finder screenshot

INTERNET SEARCH  To better understand the past environment of Kenya’s Lake Turkana Basin, asks volunteers to scrutinize thousands of aerial photos taken at the site.

Fossil Finder/Zooniverse

“Armchair anthropologist” takes on new meaning at The citizen science website is seeking volunteers to look for fossils and stone tools and to classify rocks captured in aerial photos of Kenya’s Lake Turkana Basin. The basin has been home to important discoveries in human evolution, including many hominid fossils and the earliest known stone tools (SN: 6/13/15, p. 6).

Researchers at the University of Bradford in England and the Turkana Basin Institute teamed up to create Fossil Finder. Using radio-controlled helicopters, as well as cameras hung from kites and photographic poles, the team has collected more than 900,000 images from a roughly 4-hectare swath of land. About 46,000 of these photos are online and more are being added regularly, says project coinvestigator Adrian Evans of Bradford.

“The aim is to surpass what could be ordinarily achieved with a more traditional boots-on-the-ground model of exploration,” Evans says. With more eyes carefully surveying the area, the team hopes to get a better look at Lake Turkana’s past environment.

Using Fossil Finder doesn’t require special skill, but it does take some practice. The website lacks a tutorial, but helpful pop-up windows explain what to look for and how to classify various types of rocks, fossils and other objects. The quality of the photos vary: Some have a resolution as high as 0.3 millimeters while others are too blurry to classify. Users have already analyzed over 32,000 images, and have uncovered some neat finds, including an extinct crocodile specimen, hippopotamus teeth and stone tools. 

In February, Evans says, the team intends to visit Lake Turkana to investigate these and other promising discoveries.

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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