Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Google Earth Aids Discovery of Early African Mammal Fossils

30.04.2009
A limestone countertop, a practiced eye and Google Earth all played roles in the discovery of a trove of fossils that may shed light on the origins of African wildlife.

The circuitous and serendipitous story, featuring University of Michigan paleontologists Philip Gingerich, Gregg Gunnell and Bill Sanders, is the subject of a segment on the award-winning television series "Wild Chronicles," currently airing on public television stations (Episode 412---Looking Back; check listings for local air dates). "Wild Chronicles" is produced by National Geographic Television and presented by WLIW21 in association with WNET.ORG.

The saga began when Gingerich, an authority on ancient whales, learned of a whale fossil from Egypt that had been discovered in a most unconventional way. At a stonecutting yard in Italy where blocks of stone from around the world are sliced up for countertops, masons had noticed what looked like cross-sections of a skeleton in slabs cut from a huge hunk of limestone imported from Egypt. Paleontologist Giovanni Bianucci of the University of Pisa recognized these as fossilized remains of a whale that lived in Egypt 40 million years ago, when the region was covered by ocean.

His curiosity piqued by the discovery, Gingerich wanted to visit the site where the limestone was quarried, but the exact location was something of a mystery. Bianucci had reported that the countertop whale came from a site near the Egyptian city of Sheikh Fadl, but a colleague in Egypt told Gingerich the quarry was probably farther east---exactly where, he wasn't sure.

Instead of setting out blindly across the desert, Gingerich sat down at his computer and clicked on Google Earth. After locating Sheikh Fadl, he scanned eastward until he found a range of limestone bluffs trailing across the desert like the backbone of some enormous serpent. Continuing his virtual expedition, Gingerich followed the bluffs, looking for roads branching off the main highway that might lead to quarries. Finally, about 75 miles east of Sheikh Fadl, he came across a road that traveled north to a deeply pocked area that just had to be a cluster of quarries.

Through associates in Egypt, Gingerich made arrangements to travel to Khasm el Raqaba, the area he had located on Google Earth. "Sure enough, when we got there, there was a huge quarry operation with trucks everywhere, blasting out blocks of limestone," said Gingerich, who is the Ermine Cowles Case Collegiate Professor of Paleontology and director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology. Within minutes of seeing the site, though, Gingerich realized any whale fossils that might be there would be impossible to locate.

Scanning the scene, however, something else caught his eye: bands of red in the white limestone walls of the quarry. He quickly realized the red bands represented layers of loose soil that were blown into ancient caves.

"Suddenly it dawned on me: There should be animals preserved in that sediment, too, because caves often act as traps," Gingerich said. When he searched at the base of one rock outcrop, there were tiny bones everywhere.

Gingerich collected some of the fossils and took them back to the U-M Museum of Paleontology where Gunnell, an associate research scientist, began studying them and identified teeth and bones of fossil bats. Gunnell shared the materials with Ellen Miller of Wake Forest University, who found a few rodent jaws and some additional teeth. Recently, with funding from National Geographic Society, Gunnell, Miller, U-M assistant research scientist William Sanders and Ahmed El-Barkooky of Cairo University visited the site to collect more of the fossils, which may have an interesting story of their own.

The bones and teeth---remains of small mammals that lived in the early Miocene Epoch, some 18 to 20 million years ago---are the first small mammal fossils of that age to be found in Egypt. They may even represent some of the first mammals to migrate from Asia to Africa when the land bridge between the two continents first formed.

"It's likely that animals moving from Asia to Africa passed through the Khasm el Raqaba area," Gunnell said. Were the tiny bats, rats and other creatures whose fossils the researchers found among those very first migrants, the progenitors of today's iconic African wildlife?

"The record isn't good enough to pin that down yet," Gunnell said. "But when these animals are studied in detail, they should lead to a better understanding of biogeography and dispersal events between Asia and Africa and between North Africa and the rest of the African continent."

For more information:
Philip Gingerich: www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/public/experts/ExpDisplay.php?ExpID=293
Gregg Gunnell: www.paleontology.lsa.umich.edu/Directory/individual.html?person=Gunnell
William Sanders: www.paleontology.lsa.umich.edu/Directory/individual.html?person=Sanders

"Wild Chronicles": www.nationalgeographic.com/society/ngo/donate/wildchronicles/

Nancy Ross-Flanigan | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.umich.edu

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

What the world's tiniest 'monster truck' reveals

23.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Treating arthritis with algae

23.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Witnessing turbulent motion in the atmosphere of a distant star

23.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>