When unearthing ancient fossils, paleontologists typically use brushes, shovels and chisels. Now, Google Earth can be added to their tool kit.
About three years ago, a colleague informed Philip Gingerich, director of the University’s Museum of Paleontology and professor of geological sciences, about a 40 million-year-old whale fossil that had been found in a slab of limestone in Italy. The slab of limestone — which came from a quarry in Egypt — was going to be used to make counter tops.
Instead of traveling to Egypt and wandering in the desert, Gingerich decided to hunt for the quarry by sitting in his office and using Google Earth.
“My idea was that a big rock quarry should show up,” he said. “If it’s big enough to be exporting limestone to Europe, it’s going to have trucks coming in and out of it.”
Eventually, Gingerich discovered that the quarry was located about 100 miles east of Sheikh Fadl — an agricultural town on the east side of the Nile River.
“It’s way out in the desert,” Gingerich said, “but I found the place, and I could see the track and the road where the trucks were coming and going.”
Gingerich then embarked on a personal quest to visit the site in hopes of finding more whale fossils. But once there, he stumbled upon a different discovery.
Gingerich said he noticed a “really strange red sediment cutting through the limestone.”
Red markings usually signify places where ground water has eroded caves. If the caves are open at the surface they fill with dirt and often trap animals, he said.
“I thought, well, there should be bones in that,” Gingerich said. “If animals were trapped, their bones will still be there, and so I went over to one and looked, and sure enough all over the ground were tiny little bat bones and jaws.”
Gingerich collected some samples and brought them back to be studied by Gregg Gunnell, an associate research scientist in the Museum of Paleontology.
Gunnell said the fossils contained the remains of bats and rodents, estimated to be around 20 million years old and from the Miocene period.
Though Gingerich never found the whale fossils he was originally searching for, Gunnell said the bat and rodent fossils were impressive because they could be the oldest mammal fossils from the Miocene period found in Egypt.
“They’re interesting because we don’t really have a lot of small mammals from that time period in North Africa,” Gunnell said.
Researchers aren’t completely certain the fossils represent the earliest mammals in Egypt, but Gunnell said the fossil ages coincide with a time when there was a big dispersal of Asian mammals like wildebeest into Africa.
“This place where we’re working on in Egypt is kind of right on those crossroads of coming into Africa from Asia, and in some cases going out of Africa as well,” he said.
With funding from National Geographic, Gunnell and a group of scientists journeyed to the quarry in January to see if they could find more remains. While there, National Geographic taped the fossil pursuit for a segment in the television show Wild Chronicles, which aired in April.
Unfortunately, the team had little success in finding more rodent and bat fossils.
Even though the trip didn’t lead to more findings, Gunnell said they will continue to study the fossils that were initially collected by Gingerich.
Like many scientific discoveries, Gunnell said he was glad Gingerich discovered the mammal fossils by accident.
“Phil hadn’t gone there looking for land mammals. He was looking for whales,” he said. “So it’s kind of a mistake, but it worked out quite well.”