The Turkana Basin Institute has teamed up with the University of Bradford to create FossilFinder.org, a website that allows to see the grounds of northern Kenya and help discover fossils or artifacts.
This software made its debut on Sept. 8, on the online platform “Zooniverse,” where people contribute to original research online.
“I work to try to engage and encourage public outreach in this field and so [the Fossil Finder project] was an effort to do this using citizen scientists to help search for fossils in images,” Louise Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook said in an email.
The program works by showing you a bird’s-eye view of land near Lake Turkana.
As soon as the user rates the image “OK to study,” the science begins. The next few prompts ask the user to determine the surface rubble density, the soil type and rocks or minerals present. The website explains that an understanding of the surrounding geology helps researchers know where they should search and reconstruct the historical environment that the fossils were originally deposited in.
The program plays out as a sort of paleontological “I Spy” or “Where’s Waldo?” Users online can become bona fide fossil hunters and remotely point out fossilized bones, fossilized shells, root-casts and even stone tools that have perhaps never been seen before.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded the Fossil Finder project. Leakey is the lead paleontologist and Adrian Evans of the University of Bradford is a project manager of the Fossil Finder initiative. Leakey is now working with Meave Leakey, several scientists and a team of 15 fossil hunters to survey the land and verify potential finds on-site in Kenya.
The project began in 2008 as an idea that Leakey spoke about at Sci Foo Camp, an invite-only science conference. But back then, cameras were less developed and the resolution of photos were not as clear as they needed to be.
As of today, the Fossil Finder statistics show that the program has been used by 2,054 volunteers, has 230,027 classifications and 23,229 images retired.
Just four weeks after this crowdsourced science initiative began, the Talk feature of the website displays reports of fossils found, including a few fossilized femurs, stone tools and fish fossils. In her email, Leakey also adds a few fossilized crocodile teeth, a hippo tooth and fossilized wood to the mix.
“There are sometimes a few surprises in the images,” Leakey said in the email. “We had a grasshopper found by a user and also quite a lot of animal dung, -goats, cattle, camel and bird droppings- as the same area is in habited (sic) by pastoralists whose animals cross the fossil deposits.”
Still, with the aid of the Help button, the Talk online forum and a “May be something” tagging feature, there are plenty of resources to guide anyone looking to join the ranks of leading paleontologists across the world.
For images to be “retired,” they must be viewed 11 times each, the rationale being that if enough eyes see the images, errors such as false-positives or false-negatives should be canceled out.
As the Fossil Finder tagline goes: “More eyes, more information, more discoveries.”