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Smithsonian Scientist Uses Google Earth To Find Wyoming Fossils

Scott Wing

One scientist thought he wasn't going to be able to go out into the field due to the pandemic, so he started looking for fossil plants from his desktop.

Scott Wing, a research geologist and curator of paleobotany at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., was used to spending summers in Wyoming looking for plant fossils. Last year, he was worried that might not be an option. So, he started searching Google Earth for possible fossil sites instead.

"I started thinking, 'I think I can recognize the kinds of places that I have become used to seeing. You know I think I can see some of those features on this Google Earth image,'" Wing said.

He identified a bunch of possible locations by finding rocks with specific striped features. And then it turned out he was able to make his way to Wyoming this past summer.

"I just started driving around to these places that I had marked in my GPS to see if my hunches based on the Google Earth images were any good," said WIng. "After a couple of weeks it became clear, 'Oh yeah, about half of these are panning out.'"

He said that's a really high success rate-- way higher than without the satellite images.

Wing uses those plant fossils to study past climate change events. He said how the ecosystem responded in the past might clue us in to how it will respond to the global warming happening now.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.

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