Free app lets amateurs find and I.D. fossils

"The best thing to do is look around a road cut or a little quarry where rocks are exposed so you don't have to do a lot of digging," says Bruce Lieberman of finding fossils. "Of course, don't stop along a busy stretch of road or an interstate." (Credit: iStockphoto)

A free app lets anyone with an iPhone or iPad discover and classify fossils with the eye of a scientist.

“We know people are captivated by paleontology and interested in fossils,” says principal investigator Bruce Lieberman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.

“The app links to pictures, maps, and information about how long ago fossils occurred,” he says. “We thought, ‘Hey, when people are out finding fossils, they’re not on their computer.’ They might be out walking, pick up a fossil, and think, ‘Cool! What species is this? Where have others like this one been found?'”

The app, called the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life, is available for free on iTunes.

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“It’s a way for anyone to find species in the field and learn something about them, be they farmers, amateur paleontologists, teachers of earth sciences, or biologists,” Lieberman says. “Certainly some professional paleontologists could use it.

“We wanted to distill scientific information gathered over many years. We might have some scientist in Russia who wants to see fossils in my cabinets, but they don’t have airfare and couldn’t travel to Kansas. Or there might be a rancher in Dodge City with a fossil who can’t drive to Lawrence and see what’s in our collection.

“Now we can provide the data and allow them to dig outside in the natural environment in Kansas or anywhere, then instantly access pictures and explanations of what fossils they’ve found and what they’re related to.”

Designed with kids in mind

Lieberman says his team had elementary, middle school, and high school teachers in mind when they developed the new app, hoping to give instructors a practical tool for engaging students with the wonders of the natural world.

“For school groups a teacher might be able to say, ‘Hey we’re going on this field trip and we can find these specific fossils in this place,'” Lieberman says. “Outside a Wi-Fi zone, they can show student pictures of fossils and where they occurred. Like with Google Maps, with this app you can zoom down to any geographic scale.

“A teacher can look at a map of specimens and say, ‘This one was found on Highway 59 near the junction with 458—and we can go back again and find another one.'”

Finding fossils isn’t hard

The Digital Atlas of Ancient Life app focuses on fossils with origins in the Pennsylvanian period, about 290 million years ago, with fossils common to Kansas and the Midwest; the Ordovician period, with fossils often found near Ohio; and the Neogene period with fossils usually located the Southeastern US.

Indeed, discovering fossils is easier than many people imagine, Lieberman says.

“The best thing to do is look around a road cut or a little quarry where rocks are exposed so you don’t have to do a lot of digging,” he says. “In Kansas, many of those yellow rocks that you see are packed with fossils—some are 100 percent fossils. Of course, don’t stop along a busy stretch of road or an interstate.”

Clams in Kansas

According to Lieberman, the real aim of the work was to provide everyday people a digital tool to connect them to fossils and inspire curiosity about our place in the universe.

“The most fascinating thing to me is to think about how the world was so different before humans were here, to be a thousand miles from the nearest ocean but pick up a shell of a clam that once lived by the side of the seashore,” he says.

“It puts human life into perspective to think about so much history and time and change. There’s evidence that fossils have fascinated humans for tens of thousands of years. We’ve found prehistoric encampments with fossils people had brought from hundreds of miles away.

“We’re intrigued by this connection to place and history, and this app is looking at history at a large scale. It connects us to the world and makes us think, ‘Why are we here, and how did we get here?'”

The researchers describe the project in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica. The National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: University of Kansas