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article imageOnline fossil hunters use drone photos to find ancient bones

By Megan Hamilton     Sep 9, 2015 in Science
Thanks to an online citizen science initiative, members of the public are now invited to help hunt for fossils in the Kenyan desert.
Volunteers will have the chance to pore over one million images in an area known for fossils of early human ancestors.
Launched on Tuesday at the British Science Festival in Bradford, Fossilfinder uses photos taken by archaeologists using a special aerial camera system that's mounted on kites and drones, BBC News reports.
The images are from the arid Turkana Basin, known for its abundant fossils of our early ancestors.
"It's an opportunity for the public to take part in this immense search for new fossil material at Lake Turkana," Dr. Andrew Wilson, of the University of Bradford, and one of the project's leaders, told journalists at the festival. "This is a huge amount of material that couldn't be searched by any one person, and it couldn't really be searched effectively by a computerized system on its own."
The fossil-rich Turkana Basin surrounds Lake Turkana and stretches from northern Kenya into southern Ethiopia.
The researchers are concentrating on an area that contains fossils between 1.4 and 1.8 million years old, BBC News reports. The first three species in the Homo genus are known to have emerged during this period, and this is also the time of crucial developments such as the appearance and spread of tool use among our early ancestors.
"There are major questions to be answered," said Dr. Randolph Donahue, another Bradford team member. "What's the relationship of these different species? Which one turns out to be our ancestor?"
When heavy rains arrive, the region is subject to erosion, and that reveals a treasure trove of fresh fossils each year.
While many early human fossils have been discovered here, one of the most famous is the 1.5-million-year-old hominin skeleton known as the "Turkana Boy," New Scientist reports.
Fossilfinder's first set of images cover a fossil hotspot that's east of Lake Turkana, and it only covers a tiny part of the region.
It's pretty simple to get started, volunteers don't have to register to use the site, but anyone wanting credit for a discovery can sign up. There's also a forum, so anyone with questions can get feedback on any potential finds.
If you're assessing the photos, you'll be checking the image quality, identifying different types of rock, and pinpointing anything that looks like fossils or stone tools. There's plenty of photos to show you what to look for and the website is easy to use.
Plus, there's also the chance that you could be the first to spot the bones of one of our ancestors, and any promising finds will be followed up on the ground, New Scientist reports.
However, snails, root casts, and fish vertebrae are the most common fossils, but spotting them is important too. The main aim of the project, which was set up by the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, along with the University of Bradford, UK, is to gain a better understanding of the geology and the past environment.
"Maybe if somebody finds a new fragment from the latest 1.4 million-year-old hominin, they'll get a chance to be on the committee that names it," said lead researcher Adrian Evans, reports Popular Science, per BBC News. "They might even get a 3D print, if it's a particularly nice fossil."
Those who don't sort through the photos can keep track of the project's progress via their blog, or learn about fossils that have already been discovered in the area by checking out African Fossils, an educational website.
The website was built with software provided by Zooniverse, another citizen science initiative that's been quite successful, BBC News reports.
Zooniverse founder Professor Chris Lintott, from the University of Oxford, says Fossilfinder is an exciting departure.
"We have new tools for people to be able to build their own projects - and this is the first project to use that new infrastructure," he said. "The project looks great. I'm really excited about it, and we're sure that our army of citizen scientists will be very excited by it."
In fact, this reporter will soon be one of the citizen scientists.
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