Hunting Fossils from Afar

Landsat “Picks” Out the Good Digs for Paleontologists

By Michon Scott Design by Robert Simmon October 16, 2012

In May and June 2012, Robert Anemone was doing what he usually does in early summer. The professor from Western Michigan University was preparing to spend several weeks working outdoors in Wyoming, digging for fossils in the Great Divide Basin.

But the summer of 2012 would be different. Instead of digging in his usual places for old bones and teeth, Anemone was planning to spend time in some new locations—sites handed to him by an artificial intelligence he helped create.

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True-color satellite image of the Great Divide Basin, Wyoming. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using data from the USGS Earth Explorer and Wyoming Geographic Science Center.)

Anemone started down this unusual path thanks to a spur-of-the-moment decision in 2009. He had been digging in the Great Divide Basin for 13 years, always driving to his dig sites on the same dirt roads. One day, for no particular reason, he decided to take a different route. Along the way, a new outcrop of rock caught his eye. Thinking it looked promising—“tasty” as he likes to say—he stopped the truck and started looking for fossils. That tasty outcrop proved to be the most productive site his research group has found in all of his years digging in the Great Divide.

“That was kind of a seminal moment for me,” Anemone says. “That’s when I realized just how much of this is based purely on luck.”

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This expanse of bare rock—Tim’s Confessions—is the richest fossil site Robert Anemone’s team has ever discovered in the Great Divide Basin. In the summer of 2009, they found 500 mammal jaws and 4,000 teeth and skeletal pieces. (Photograph ©2009 Robert Anemone, University of Western Michigan.)

Most vertebrate paleontologists today find fossils the same way their predecessors did in the nineteenth century. They walk the landscape looking for big fossils; sometimes they crawl on the surface looking for little ones. Figuring out which sites to visit is a matter of reading the scientific literature to see where good fossils have been found and reading the geology to discern where fossils might be buried.

Although fossils can be found in almost any type of landscape, badlands—which have scarce vegetation but plenty of bare rock—are among the most fruitful sites. But badlands cover big areas, and inspecting every outcrop in these hot, dry regions is not practical.

After stumbling upon his best fossil site by accident, Anemone decided it was time to improve his odds of success. The key was not sharpening his eyesight on the ground, but using eyes in the sky.

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