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Fossil Facebook: Digitization of Fossils Going Public

If some people are worried about pictures from freshman year surfacing on the internet, imagine this: a 290 million year old organism gets put on a publicly accessible database, from its specific location all the way to a picture from its deathbed.

Coming soon to your newsfeed:  Fossil Facebook.

Bruce Lieberman, University of Kansas professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is currently heading this fossil digitization project, which is funded by a $600,000 grant from theNational Science Foundation's Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program. The grant spans three universities, including The University of Kansas, San José University, and Ohio University, each assigned a different time period.

KU is studying the Pennsylvanian time period, which can be found in much of the limestone that lies in a wide belt from Texas to Kansas. "It's about 290 million years old," said Lieberman, "and just packed with fossils. Because so many people over the years, students and faculty and others, have collected fossils from these rocks we really have a prodigious amount of material from this time period and region."


It's precisely because of that amount of material that part of the focus of the project is to make it publicly available, instead of allowing it to sit as "dark data." In the current fossil labeling system, the location and specifics of many fossil collections are hard to find for researchers, and often hard to study due to monetary concerns.

Lieberman hopes to be able to take this massive collection of data and be able to digitize and sort it so the most relevant information can be extracted. Part of this has already been done on Specify, a geo-specific database program that has information on different species including the latitude and longitude.


Studying the fossil record allows scientists to study the cyclical nature of climate change, and the effects this has on species. Lifemapper, another database program, uses ecological niche modeling to do just that. Ecological niche modeling analytically puts together the different environmental factors surrounding a specimen as a way of understanding species distribution.

"One of the key things," Lieberman explains, "is that we have this tremendous repository of data, but to be able to take that next step, to precisely and quantitatively relate climate change to where species are and what happens to them, we need to do it analytically and with quantitative methods."


In addition to creating a publicly available database of fossil information, the project also aims to make apps for fossil finds. The point is to have the information available in the field - whether that means for researchers, teachers, or paleontology enthusiasts.


The species Lieberman's group will study in Kansas are echinoderms, crinoids (a type of echinoderm), trilobites, and brachiopods.

The current project won't allow the public to input data, but Lieberman hopes that the longer term goals will allow the public to tag certain species, which would then be verified by researchers. The entire project is set to take three years to complete all the digitization and the digital atlases.


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