New Research Finds Satellite Imagery Could Improve Fossil-Hunting at Remote Sites

New Research Finds Satellite Imagery Could Improve Fossil-Hunting at Remote Sites
© University of Oregon

Paleontologists discover satellite imagery could help paleontologists spot promising fossil sites before trekking into remote places.

Why this is important:

  • New research from the lab of University of Oregon paleontologist Edward Davis shows that satellite data can reveal large individual fossils from the air, allowing field researchers to embark on more targeted searches on the ground.
  • A technique of this kind could be part of a shift within the field of paleontology.
  • In Eastern Oregon, as in many other places, fossils are located in wilderness areas where motor vehicles are prohibited. Trekking on foot looking for fossils is a lot of work. Having the ability to use aerial photography to find fossils could allow searchers to narrow down spots to search before going out there.
  • Their findings were published Nov. 28 in the journal Geological Magazine.

How it works:

  • The team analyzed multispectrum satellite imagery, which includes not just visible light, but also other wavelengths like ultraviolet and infrared.
  • By looking at how all these different types of light are absorbed or reflected by the landscape, researchers can pick out specific features, like fossils, from the background.
  • “Organizing field work is very expensive, and there are lots of safety and security risks,” said Elena Ghezzo, who led the work as a postdoctoral researcher in Davis’ lab. “So any additional information you can have from the field before you go is useful. My method seems be really good at ruling out regions that don’t have fossils.”
  • This kind of satellite data is often used to do aerial surveys of cities and track patterns of land use. But it hasn’t been used before to search for single fossils.
  • The researchers tested their idea with data from Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.