Hint: Look Down – A student once found a valuable fossil just by looking down. Now a paleontologist has discovered some extraordinary fossils by looking at his kitchen counter.
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 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. Italian 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, but 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,” says Gingerich. 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.
He says, “Suddenly it dawned on me: There should be animals preserved in that sediment, too, because caves often act as traps.” When he searched at the base of one rock outcrop, there were tiny bones everywhere. He collected some of the fossils and took them back to his university museum, where fellow paleontologist Gregg Gunnell began studying them and identified teeth and bones of fossil bats.
So if you want to find a fossil, the next time you walk down the street or cut up a vegetable on your countertop, LOOK DOWN.
Art credit: Dreamstime.com
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