For centuries, paleontologists have carried out their fossil-hunting efforts in much the same way—research, fieldwork and a very generous dose of luck. Thanks to an interdisciplinary partnership between a geographer and an anthropologist at Western Michigan University, that may be about to change.
WMU Anthropology Professor Robert Anemone spent more than a decade of summers looking for fossil beds, with some success, in Wyoming‛s Great Divide Basin. That all changed, however, in 2009 when Anemone‛s team, on a hunch, took a turn down an unknown road.
What resulted was the discovery of one of the richest fossil sites in the entire American West from the Eocene period of 50 million years ago.
The new site is dense with the remains of early primates and many other mammals that prospered in the rapid temperature increase marking Eocene. To date, Anemone and his team have discovered more fossils from the new site than in his previous 15 years in the basin.
“While the discovery was an amazing experience,” Anemone says, “I didn‛t want to wait another 15 years for it to happen again. I thought, there had to be a better way.”
An alliance between Anemone and Charles Emerson, associate professor of geography, means an improved method may be at hand. Using geographic information science and remote sensing data, Anemone and Emerson have devised a neural network that serves as a predictive indicator for locating rich fossil beds. Using this computer modeling system, Anemone and Emerson have been able to pinpoint within the Great Divide Basin certain areas of sandstone formations that have historically proven to be great preservers of fossils.
Although the first field test of the neural network‛s findings will not occur until July 2012—when Anemone and his team, including WMU graduate and undergraduate students, return to Wyoming—independent paleontology experts familiar with the basin have verified its accuracy.
“While there is always going to be a trial and error aspect to the work of paleontologists,” notes Anemone, “the whole idea of harnessing technology to better focus our efforts both makes sense and shows promise. We‛re excited to see where this takes us.”