Google Earth Helps Find New Member of Our Family Tree

Via Slashdot (and numerous other places), a group of researchers using Google Earth to spot good hunting sites for fossils found parts of two skeletons that “fill an important gap between older hominids and the group of more modern species known as Homo, which includes our own kind.”

Google Earth has been in the news a lot lately as people have used to to find almost anything you can think of. One comment on Slashdot asked why we’re seeing all of these things being discovered with Google Earth when similar tools have been available for a long time. I think this answer by Xest nails it. Note the bold bits I did to emphasize a few key points and aren’t in the original comment:

I think you’d be suprised, there seems to be a similar trend in other universities, I think it’s because many departments run on shoe string budgets, and GIS was often an expense they couldn’t afford.

Now it’s available free to them, and cross platform so they can make use of it anywhere from their desktop to their laptop at home to their mobile phone/PDA in the field.

A friend who is a botanist working at a university in Brazil makes heavy use of it along with the rest of his department to map various plant species, and their spread and decline as a tool for helping map the discovery and decline of species, as well as acting as an aid to give clues as to how newly discovered, or previously poorly classified species might be classified or re-classified taxonomically. It helps give clues to where hybridisation may have led to new distinct species and so forth.

It’s a tool his department simply didn’t have before, but perhaps that’s part of it too. Those who are experts in one field, don’t necessarily know enough to know tools like this even exist, until companies like Google make them popular and put them in the public eye. When those experts do see these tools they realise how utterly useful they are- remember, not everyone knows enough about computers to know what’s out there, or to realise the many ways in which they can assist their day to day work.

Advancement of the tools matters too- phones/pdas with built in GPS and access to these applications, cameras that tag photos with GPS coordinates, cheaper than ever GPS devices and so on all increase the attractiveness and ease of use of these apps where people may previously have found them too difficult or too much hassle to work with over their existing methods too I suppose.