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Using Satellites to Hunt for Fossils

Paleontologists develop technique for finding promising fossil sites with multispectrum satellite imagery

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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New research from the University of Oregon illustrates a technique for optimizing fossil hunting efforts by leveraging satellite imagery to identify promising fossil sites before trekking into the wilderness. By identifying such sites, paleontologists would be able to better target where they should begin looking for fossils, ideally quickening the process and saving on resources.

The new study, published in Geological Magazinewas led by researchers from the lab of paleontologist Edward B. Davis, PhD, who is one of the lead authors along with Elena Ghezzo and Matteo Massironi. Together, the researchers showed that satellite data can identify possible large fossils in remote areas, where it would otherwise be difficult to find the fossils. The team argues that by identifying suspected fossils with satellite imagery, it would allow research teams to more precisely target specific areas to dig. “Organizing field work is very expensive, and there are lots of safety and security risks,” said Elena Ghezzo, lead author and postdoctoral researcher. “So, any additional information you can have from the field before you go is useful. My method seems to be really good at ruling out regions that don’t have fossils.”

Ghezzo’s technique involves analyzing multispectrum satellite images, which encompass visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Examining how different types of light are absorbed and reflected by the earth essentially highlights areas of interest. Traditionally, this technology was applied to surveying cities and tracking land use. This is the first time it has been applied in the realm of paleontology.

Ghezzo and her team used data from Petrified Forest National Park to test their idea. Eons ago, the area was a coniferous forest, but over the centuries it has degraded into a desert full of fossilized trees from that time. According to the press release from the University of Oregon, “To be picked out via satellite, a fossil must be bigger than a single pixel in the image. And its mineral composition must respond differently to light than the surrounding material.” With a custom-made reference map, the researchers were able to identify the optical signatures of fossils in the satellite data.

With the technology developed, Davis is interested in using this approach on some sites his team is working on in eastern Oregon, which is particularly difficult to hunt for fossils in because motorized vehicles are banned.