Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Google Earth Aids Discovery Of Early African Mammal Fossils

Date:
April 29, 2009
Source:
University of Michigan
Summary:
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.

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 saga began when University of Michigan paleontologist Philip 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 Gregg 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."

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). "Wild Chronicles" is produced by National Geographic Television and presented by WLIW21 in association with WNET.ORG.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Michigan. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Michigan. "Google Earth Aids Discovery Of Early African Mammal Fossils." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 April 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090428171006.htm>.
University of Michigan. (2009, April 29). Google Earth Aids Discovery Of Early African Mammal Fossils. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090428171006.htm
University of Michigan. "Google Earth Aids Discovery Of Early African Mammal Fossils." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090428171006.htm (accessed July 31, 2014).

Share This




More Fossils & Ruins News

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Where Did The World Trade Center Shipwreck Come From?

Where Did The World Trade Center Shipwreck Come From?

Newsy (July 31, 2014) Scientists say a ship remnant discovered underneath Ground Zero dates back to the 18th century. Why it sank is still uncertain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre

Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre

AP (July 29, 2014) Food scraps and other items left on the grounds by picnickers brings unwelcome visitors to the grounds of the world famous and popular Louvre Museum in Paris. (July 29) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
London's Famed 'Gherkin' Goes on Sale for 650 Mln

London's Famed 'Gherkin' Goes on Sale for 650 Mln

AFP (July 29, 2014) London's "Gherkin" office tower, one of the landmarks on the British capital's skyline, went on sale for about 650 million ($1.1 billion, 820 million euros) on Tuesday after being placed into receivership. Duration: 00:36 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Asteroid's Timing Was 'Colossal Bad Luck' For The Dinosaurs

Asteroid's Timing Was 'Colossal Bad Luck' For The Dinosaurs

Newsy (July 28, 2014) The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs struck at the worst time for them. A new study says that if it hit earlier or later, they might've survived. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins