Remote Sensing: How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

"Radar sensors can spot the different densities of the fossilized bones beneath the surface of the Earth. Read our article about remote sensing."

Remote sensing is a way of gathering information through technology that paleontologists can use over vast areas. Paleontology is the study of fossils. Combining remote sensing and paleontology enables large areas that you can survey for fossils without visiting them. This method reduces the time and cost of fossil surveys and the risks associated with traveling to remote locations.

This research aimed to test how effective “deep learning” (an artificial intelligence technique) was at mapping changes in soil color in aerial photos of the Gobi Desert. Researchers chose this area because it has many dinosaurs and other soil conditions. Deep learning can use this information to learn what paleontologists look for when deciding whether a site is worth visiting. It can then apply that knowledge to new areas scientists have not yet explored.

Remote sensing can allow researchers to search for fossils without physically visiting them, saving time and money while reducing risk. Many remote sensing methods exist, from satellites to drones, and each can be useful for paleontologists. This article will discuss how remote sensing can help paleontologists find millions of old bones.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

What is Remote Sensing?

Remote sensing is an umbrella term for various methods for collecting data about the Earth remotely. This technology can do this by recording radiation emitted or reflected from the planet’s surface, atmosphere, and interior. The type of remote sensing used for paleontological work is terrestrial remote sensing.

Light detection and positioning (LiDAR) sensing are more commonly used to map rock outcrops. The magnetometer data is then processed to create maps showing the magnetic properties of the exposed rocks.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

Remote Sensing Techniques

Not only paleontologists use remote sensing but also archaeologists, climate researchers, geologists, and others. Remote sensing has become an important tool for scientists who study Earth’s past and its ancient inhabitants. Here are some examples of how paleontologists can use remote sensing technologies. 

Satellite Imagery

Satellites are machines that orbit Earth at high speeds and take pictures of our planet. Scientists can use them in many ways, including for military purposes, weather forecasting, and finding fossils. This section will discuss ways to detect fossils using satellite imagery:

Multispectral Imaging

Multispectral imaging works by capturing light across several wavelengths at once. It allows scientists to see color changes caused by minerals and elements such as iron or carbon dioxide (CO2). This method lets them see things humans can’t see with their eyes, like plants or minerals hidden from view but still present. 

Paleontologists can use it in areas with no vegetation or vegetation that doesn’t have much contrast between leaves and stems (like grass). The different wavelengths reveal different features of your landscape. It includes geological features like rock formations, outcrops, caves, and sinkholes; biological features like animal tracks; and cultural features like roads and buildings.

It can detect things like oil or gas deposits, but it’s also very useful in identifying dinosaur fossils. The reason is that they appear differently depending on their minerals.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

Thermal Infrared Imaging

Thermal infrared imaging detects heat signatures from living organisms, like dinosaurs or other animals. It can be useful for paleontologists because it helps them see where there are interesting rocks that might contain fossilized bones. Paleontologists can also use it to find fossils buried deep underground or underwater. 

Thermal infrared imaging will show you where warm spots on the ground could indicate fossils or other objects buried beneath it. It allows them to find out exactly where these organisms may be hiding without digging up the entire area. 

This type of imaging identifies many types of fossils – but not all – including crocodile teeth, turtle shells, snake skins, and even fish scales. This technique also works well for identifying dinosaur footprints.

Hyperspectral Imaging

Hyperspectral imaging uses near-infrared light to detect chemical changes in the soil around fossils. By using it on top of other imaging techniques (such as multispectral and thermal infrared), scientists can identify even more types of fossils.

It measures how much light bounces off an object and into space. It gives scientists information about what materials make up an object or area (for instance, whether it’s made of organic matter like coal).

Hyperspectral imaging looks at all wavelengths of light at once. It allows paleontologists to look at finer details than they would be able to see with either multispectral or thermal infrared images alone.

By combining these three types of satellite imagery with other tools like ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and aerial photography, paleontologists can better understand what they’re looking at and get a better idea of where they should look next.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

Aerial Photography

Aerial photography is a technique that uses an airplane, drone, or helicopter to get an aerial view of an area of interest. Paleontologists can use it to take pictures of the ground below and then share them with others. Before they invented satellites, scientists used this technique because it was cheaper and easier than satellite use.

The plane flies over the area at a relatively low altitude (usually less than 1,000 feet) and takes pictures with a camera mounted on the side of the plane. These photos are then stitched together into one big image called a mosaic. It shows everything from houses to mountains to dinosaurs. 

Since World War I, aerial photography has been around when planes were first used for reconnaissance missions during wartime operations. Today’s technology allows us to take much higher-resolution photographs than ever before.

The advantage of aerial photography is that it allows you to see large areas simultaneously. It would be impossible with ground-based methods such as digging or walking around with a metal detector. The disadvantage of aerial photography is that it does not have a great resolution. It’s difficult to see small details from above like you would be able to if you were standing on the ground where you suspect that there are dinosaur fossils.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

Light Detection and Ranging Systems (LiDAR)

LiDAR works by sending a laser pulse from an airplane or drone to the ground and measuring how long it takes for the beam to return. Scientists can use the beam to create 3D models of landscapes and buildings, or paleontologists can use it to measure distances between objects on the ground. 

Researchers use LiDAR to find dinosaur fossils by creating 3D models of the landscape around them. These models help them identify features like canyons and valleys formed by erosion over time. When they find these features, they look for signs of dinosaur activity in those areas—like tracks or droppings—and then excavate fossils from those locations.

There are two types of LiDAR

  • Airborne Topographic Laser Scanning (ATLS), which uses airborne platforms.
  • Terrestrial Laser Scanning (TLS), which uses ground-based equipment. 

Both types are effective in their own right, but ATLS is more accurate than TLS at depths between 10 and 20 centimeters (4 inches). In contrast, TLS may be more cost-effective, and ATLS would be better suited for finding
dinosaur fossils at this depth range.

How LiDAR Works: Airborne Topographic Laser Scanning, ATLS

Airborne Topographic Laser Scanning (ATLS) is a system that uses lasers to map the topography of an area from an aircraft or helicopter. It works much like regular LiDAR in that it emits pulses of light and analyzes the reflections to measure distance. 

The difference is that ATLS scans at much higher frequencies than regular LiDAR. It can capture very fine details of terrain features such as trees or rocks while still analyzing objects farther away than regular LiDAR would be able to detect.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

How LiDAR Works: Terrestrial Laser Scanning, TLS or Terrestrial Telescanning, TTS

Paleontologists can use TLS to create highly detailed, accurate maps of archaeological sites without requiring surface excavation. TLS uses lasers to scan an object at high speeds, while TTS uses a rotating mirror to scan multiple angles at once. Both types of LiDAR use an infrared laser invisible to the naked eye but observable from detectors installed on aircraft or satellites above ground level. 

When a laser pulse strikes an object, it reflects off the surface and back toward its source. It records the returning pulse using sensors called photodiodes. These sensors convert photons into electrons. Microchips inside the instrument process them before providing data insights about what they discovered, such as distance measurements or color information. 

It makes them useful tools for mapping. These measurements are then used to create an image of what’s underfoot—even if it’s buried under many meters’ worth of rock or dirt.

Radar Instruments

For decades, archaeologists and other scientists have used radar instruments to locate buried structures like tombs and pyramids. Archaeologists have also used them to map out ancient settlements to determine where they are most likely located. And now, paleontologists are using them too.

This method allows them to make an accurate map of what is below the surface. The most common uses of radar instruments are for weather forecasting and navigation. Paleontologists have also started using them to find fossils. 

The first step in using a radar instrument to find dinosaur fossils is to map the area where you think the location of a fossil might be. Then you need to locate any exposed rock layers by digging them up with dynamite or other tools. Paleontologists mount the instruments on the back of a truck or a helicopter. 

You can start sending out electromagnetic waves that bounce off any objects in their path from your radar instrument. These waves return to the instrument, which can then convert them into images. The images help paleontologists determine whether there are any fossils nearby. 

Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPRS)

Ground-penetrating radar (GPRS) is a remote sensing tool used to locate and identify fossils. Using electromagnetic waves, paleontologists and archaeologists use GPRS to locate buried objects, including fossils and artifacts.

The ground-penetrating radar works by sending electromagnetic waves into the ground through an antenna. The waves travel at different speeds depending on what they hit: the faster they go, the deeper they can penetrate the soil. When they hit something hard like a fossil or metal object, they bounce back with less energy than when they hit loose sand or gravel.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

Paleontologists can use this method to distinguish between different types of materials. For example, it can differentiate between bone and sedimentary rock or between a metal artifact and surrounding soil or stone. Paleontologists have used this technique to find dinosaur fossils worldwide, including in Argentina, South Africa, and China.

By measuring the amount of energy returned to an antenna after hitting different types of material, we can tell which materials are present below ground level. This method lets us map out areas where paleontologists might find fossils with relatively high success.

How Does Gis Make it Easier to Search for Fossils?

Gis, or Geographic Information Systems, is a computer system that manages spatial data. Paleontologists can use this technology to determine where fossils are and how they interact with their surroundings.

Gis makes it easier for paleontologists to analyze fossil sites by allowing them to view data in various ways. For example, they can search through satellite imagery using Gis and find a spot where they think fossils might be. Then they can use other Gis functions like topology and distance measurement to get a sense of how far away the site is from their current location and whether they have time to reach it before dark. 

They might also use Gis to show them what direction they’d need to go to find the fossil site and whether there is enough gas left in the tank if they decide to go there anyway. Basically: Gis is like Google Maps on steroids.

For example, if you’re looking for dinosaur bones in a specific area, you’ll want to know what rock layers formed the area and when they formed. This kind of information is available through remote sensing. You will also want to know what kind of rock the bones are likely buried in. Scientists can also determine this using remote sensing.

The second use of remote sensing involves determining what kind of fossil you’re looking for and identifying it accurately. For example, suppose you’re looking for dinosaur bones but don’t know what they are (because they are old and buried long ago). In that case, remote sensing can help identify them based on their size and shape alone and other factors such as coloration or texture differences between different types.

Remote Sensing How it Can Help Paleontologists to Find Fossils

Final Thoughts

Combining remote sensing and other geospatial technologies can help us find dinosaur fossils. Paleontologists can also use them to integrate with traditional paleontological methods. For example, fieldwork provides a deeper understanding than the individual research method on its own. Those remote sensing maps can guide where to excavate and what kinds of dinosaur fossils or sediments to expect through fieldwork. 

And through remote sensing, paleontologists can discover new, previously unknown sites by lucky fortuitous mistakes caused by field workers. In the end, remote sensing will continue to aid paleontologists in searching for dinosaur fossils as long as technology develops.

Charmaine Smit

Charmaine Smit


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