such as "Introduction", "Conclusion"..etc
A limestone countertop, a practiced eye and Google Earth all played
roles in the discovery of a trove of fossils that may shed light on the
origins of African wildlife.
The saga began when University of Michigan paleontologist Philip
Gingerich, an authority on ancient whales, learned of a whale fossil
from Egypt that had been discovered in a most unconventional way. At a
stonecutting yard in Italy where blocks of stone from around the world
are sliced up for countertops, masons had noticed what looked like
cross-sections of a skeleton in slabs cut from a huge hunk of limestone
imported from Egypt. Paleontologist Giovanni Bianucci of the University
of Pisa recognized these as fossilized remains of a whale that lived in
Egypt 40 million years ago, when the region was covered by ocean.
His curiosity piqued by the discovery, Gingerich wanted to visit the
site where the limestone was quarried, but the exact location was
something of a mystery. Bianucci had reported that the countertop whale
came from a site near the Egyptian city of Sheikh Fadl, but a colleague
in Egypt told Gingerich the quarry was probably farther east—exactly
where, he wasn't sure.
Instead of setting out blindly across the desert, Gingerich sat down
at his computer and clicked on Google Earth. After locating Sheikh
Fadl, he scanned eastward until he found a range of limestone bluffs
trailing across the desert like the backbone of some enormous serpent.
Continuing his virtual expedition, Gingerich followed the bluffs,
looking for roads branching off the main highway that might lead to
quarries. Finally, about 75 miles east of Sheikh Fadl, he came across a
road that traveled north to a deeply pocked area that just had to be a
cluster of quarries.
Through associates in Egypt, Gingerich made arrangements to travel
to Khasm el Raqaba, the area he had located on Google Earth. "Sure
enough, when we got there, there was a huge quarry operation with
trucks everywhere, blasting out blocks of limestone," said Gingerich,
who is the Ermine Cowles Case Collegiate Professor of Paleontology
and director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology. Within minutes of
seeing the site, though, Gingerich realized any whale fossils that
might be there would be impossible to locate.
Scanning the scene, however, something else caught his eye: bands of
red in the white limestone walls of the quarry. He quickly realized the
red bands represented layers of loose soil that were blown into ancient
"Suddenly it dawned on me: There should be animals preserved in that
sediment, too, because caves often act as traps," Gingerich said. When
he searched at the base of one rock outcrop, there were tiny bones
Gingerich collected some of the fossils and took them back to the
U-M Museum of Paleontology where Gregg Gunnell, an associate research
scientist, began studying them and identified teeth and bones of fossil
bats. Gunnell shared the materials with Ellen Miller of Wake Forest
University, who found a few rodent jaws and some additional teeth.
Recently, with funding from National Geographic Society, Gunnell,
Miller, U-M assistant research scientist William Sanders and Ahmed
El-Barkooky of Cairo University visited the site to collect more of the
fossils, which may have an interesting story of their own.
The bones and teeth—remains of small mammals that lived in the early
Miocene Epoch, some 18 to 20 million years ago—are the first small
mammal fossils of that age to be found in Egypt. They may even
represent some of the first mammals to migrate from Asia to Africa when
the land bridge between the two continents first formed.
"It's likely that animals moving from Asia to Africa passed through
the Khasm el Raqaba area," Gunnell said. Were the tiny bats, rats and
other creatures whose fossils the researchers found among those very
first migrants, the progenitors of today's iconic African wildlife?
"The record isn't good enough to pin that down yet," Gunnell said.
"But when these animals are studied in detail, they should lead to a
better understanding of biogeography and dispersal events between Asia
and Africa and between North Africa and the rest of the African
The circuitous and serendipitous story, featuring University of
Michigan paleontologists Philip Gingerich, Gregg Gunnell and Bill
Sanders, is the subject of a segment on the award-winning television
series "Wild Chronicles," currently airing on public television
stations (Episode 412—Looking Back). "Wild Chronicles" is produced by
National Geographic Television and presented by WLIW21 in association
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