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How do paleontologists discover and unearth fossils?

From time to time we hear that fossils of dinosaurs, hominids or other extinct animals have been discovered. But how do paleontologists find these remains or traces in nature? The answer involves skill, technology and, why not, luck?

The first tool of the three that we will discuss in this text is skill. For educational purposes, we would like to think of it as consisting of two parts: one theoretical and one practical.

That is, on the one hand, we have the conventional formation of the intellect. In the specific case of Paleontology – which, in Brazil, is only accessible via specialist degree in related areas -, its professionals are concerned with unraveling the history of life on (and of) the Earth. Therefore, his training mainly includes the study of disciplines related to Biology and Geology, since his main object of interest is fossils.

Theory provides the structure, but it is by putting it into practice that we see the researcher working with creativity, curiosity and criticism. After all, being flexible and developing a critical view of the world – and also of our knowledge – leads us to discovery and also advances Science.

Technology: Allied to find fossils

The researcher can start his search with a geological map that helps him find this sedimentary rock to establish the paleontological site. Then, you can fall back on aerial imagery from planes and satellites to find where an exposed piece of that rock is. These browsing techniques save you time and money.

As we have seen, the paleontologist already goes into the field knowing what to look for and where. Specifically, he looks for places with a specific type of rock (called sedimentary) and, to find them, he relies not only on people’s accounts and their own wanderings, but also on maps and technology.

The Curtis Formation in Utah, USA, is an example of exposed Jurassic Period sedimentary rock

Although there is no visible rock, there is also the possibility of carrying out an exploratory excavation in places with evidence of this material. Upon finding this rock, the researcher will begin a survey process to see if there is (or not) a fossil to remove.

Once the fossil is found, the next phase begins: the collection. Contrary to popular belief, paleontologists do not carry out all the analyzes in the field. Instead, they will separate a piece of this rock to take it to the laboratory.

To do this, the professionals create a safety margin and excavate the block of rock. This is where they arm themselves with awls, hammers, chisels and other tools to dig up the fossil. Once the material is semi-exposed, it’s time to protect the block of rock with gypsum wrap for shipping.

Researchers excavate a block of rock with fossil to transport it to the laboratory

As we have explained, it is in the laboratory that researchers will effectively separate the fossil from the rock. Initially, they start at the top and work their way up slowly and carefully. The idea is to collect the fossil and not destroy it in the process. To do this, they apply a resin to the fossil, which enters the material and hardens it, preventing it from breaking.

luck is part

The third component to finding a fossil is luck. In 2021, for example, dinosaur fossils were discovered during an excavation of a rainwater tunnel in São Paulo. Later that year, but in another part of the state, it was their turn to find them on a highway project. Were it not for human intervention in nature, these fossils probably would not have been found.

Source: Arco magazine (UFSM) And Australian Museum????????

The post How do paleontologists discover and unearth fossils? first appeared on Look Digital.

Source: Olhar Digital



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