Fancy hunting for fossil hotspots in Africa from the comfort of your own sofa?

Fossilfinder, a pioneering citizen science project was unveiled at the British Science Festival today. It will turn the public into amateur palaeontologists, who can make a direct contribution to research by a team of archaeologists at the University of Bradford, led by Randolph Donahue and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

“More eyes, more information, more discoveries” says Louise Leaky from the Turkana Basin Institute who collaborate on the project. Participants will trawl through images from the vast Turkana basin in Kenya and report back on potentially interesting finds and on what the ground looks like; is it sand? Rock? Using this information, the scientists can decide whether to deploy a ground team to the specific area from the field stations at Turkwel and Ileret, on the west and eastern shores of Lake Turkana.

The scale of people’s contribution means that hotspots of potential interest can be identified – “it’s not about the individual picture”, says Adrian Evans, the project’s manager. The approach is already transforming the way the teams on the ground are looking at the environment says Andrew Wilson, a member of the team. Leakey says the public will “help document the fossil-bearing landscapes, which will assist us in the reconstruction of past environments”. Armed with this information, Donahue says scientists can ask questions about the relationship between different hominid species in the area, their use of technology, and their relationship to modern humans.

The Turkana basin is a world famous fossil site. The skull of Nariokotome Boy, a 1.6 million year-old Homo erectus was discovered here in 1984, as was the earliest evidence for tool use by human ancestors. The site is vast, and continuously changing in character. For the past 7 million years, either a lake or a large river was present here, providing ideal conditions not only for the formation of fossils, but also for their exposure to the surface with the passage of time. This is one of the reasons why the scientists are asking for the help of the public: it will allow the team to go back to the same areas to look at the transformation of the site over time; “this would take a field team a substantial amount of time on an annual basis” says Donahue. In practice, “it’s just not possible” to do this with only a team of archaeologists, says Evans.

Fossilfinder is hosted by Zooniverse, an online platform for people-powered science. Zooniverse originally launched in July 2007 with Galaxy Zoo, a successful astronomical project which received over 50 million interactions in its first year and is currently in its 4th incarnation. The platform enables practical public engagement with a direct contribution to scientific discovery.

Fossilfinder’s testing phase on the platform received more than 4000 classification contributions in its first 5 days. The full launch, going live tomorrow, is expected to attract even more interest, to match the scale of the data that the scientists are collecting. The project team scan 8 kilometres a day, taking photographs of the vast area of the basin from helicopters or remote aerial devices at 3 pixels per millimetre. This resolution produces images equivalent to what a field archaeologist would see, squatting in their dessert-boots over their sampling patch.

Image credit "Aipichthys Minor Cénomanien Liban" by Didier Descouens - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Anastasia Christakou is a British Science Association Media Fellow, and researcher at the University of Reading. During her Media Fellowship, she was placed with Nature News, funded by BBSRC.