Hi-tech fossil finding

Graduate student Tyler Jones, of Auburn University, sets up a LIDAR instrument in Wyoming's Great Divide Basin.
Graduate student Tyler Jones, of Auburn University, sets up a LIDAR instrument in Wyoming's Great Divide Basin.

What do monkeys in Wyoming, laser beams pointed at the earth, and 50-million-year-old teeth have in common? You can ponder that all day, but you probably won’t come up with the connection unless you talk with Robert Anemone.

Anemone, a professor of anthropology at UNC Greensboro, is one of the first paleontologists to borrow some of the high-tech gadgets from geographers’ toolkits and use them to locate fossil sites that may have otherwise remained elusive.

One such gadget uses a remote-sensing technology called LIDAR and could one day help unearth a fossil site’s most guarded secrets, like that the ancestors of modern monkeys once roamed Wyoming millions of years ago during the Eocene epoch – a fact revealed years ago by fossil evidence found in that state’s Great Divide Basin.

A LIDAR instrument is made up of a laser, a scanner, and a GPS system and works by measuring the distances of different characteristics on terrain through reflected light.

It’s not a new technology. Other researchers have latched onto LIDAR to help them create 3D computer models and hi-resolution maps in their respective fields.

“Geologists have been using LIDAR for awhile to understand oil reservoirs,” Anemone said. “I think we are the first paleontologists who are trying to use it to understand the formation of fossil sites.”

This summer, Anemone joined colleagues from Alabama’s Auburn University to scan parts of the 3,861 square miles that make up the Great Divide Basin, a region known to keep fossils from the Eocene – Anemone’s area of expertise.

By scanning locales already known to be fossil-dense, then plugging the data into a predictive computer model that uses satellite imagery to find sites that share those similar characteristics, paleontologists like Anemone can learn more about the nature and formation of sandstone – the material in which the fossils he studies are found – and also the whereabouts of more of them.

Sandstone sites aren’t always easy to locate. Off the beaten paths in places like the Great Divide Basin, they are often obstructed by tall grasses and rock formations, and often stumbled upon by accident.

Most of Anemone’s two-week field session this summer was spent looking for new locales, rather than returning to known, previously collected sites. He estimates his group found 25 jaws and several hundred teeth and bones.

“When you look at the history of paleontology, people have found some famous things, and you know, they got lucky. They went down the road they never have been down before. They kicked over a rock and saw fossil. Everybody has stories like that,” Anemone said. “What we are trying to do is remove some of the serendipity.”

Paleontologists spend an enormous amount of time in the field just looking for a possible locale with fossils.

“There are a lot of days where we spend an hour and a half walking to a site, there won’t be anything, we spend an hour and a half walking back to our vehicles, and it’s lunchtime,” Anemone said.

Technology like LIDAR can make the work easier and more efficient.

Not everyone is keen on harnessing remote-sensing technology to track down fossils yet, but Anemone said it’s probably just a matter of time before it becomes more accepted in the field.

“Older, more established scholars are probably a little more resistant than the people who are coming out of graduate school now who have taken courses in GIS,” Anemone said. “So I’m optimistic that in a couple of years these approaches … will be much more broadly used.”