September 25, 2018

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Scientists quantify the vast and valuable finds stored on museum shelves

Quantifying 'dark data' in fossil collections is a call to arms; heralds a digital revolution

Burke PR

San Francisco and Seattle—Days after a fire tore through Brazil's National Museum and destroyed specimens of irreplaceable heritage, a team of scientists has quantified the vast number of fossils that sit unstudied in natural history collections—a project three years in the making. Based on their findings, the team estimates only 3 to 4 percent of recorded fossil locations from across the globe are currently accounted for in published scientific literature. This means any shelved specimens that have never been published or documented digitally remain vulnerable to loss.

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences, University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and 7 other partner institutions are working to preserve these "dark data" in online databases, highlighting the need for underfunded museums around the world to invest in the digital preservation of their collections. The project's preliminary results were published in Biology Letters earlier this month.

Fossil-finding long predates the digital age, leaving modern paleontologists with the Herculean task of compiling enough data by hand to address large-scale questions of planetary change. The first digital revolution for fossil collections began in the 1990s, when the scientific community launched several still-growing online databases based on published literature, the most comprehensive being the Paleobiology Database (PBDB).

Today, a second digital revolution is underway. Led by UCMP, ten institutions are digitally cataloging fossil invertebrate specimens from their collections. The current project, known as EPICC (Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic), compiles marine invertebrate fossils that span the past 66 million years and hail from Chile to Alaska. This is only the second paleontological consortium to be funded for digitizing collections.

The study's co-authors compared the number of locations represented by fossils in the literature-based PBDB to the number of locations tallied in the new EPICC database for the states of Washington, Oregon and California. They found that for every fossil-bearing location recorded in the scientific literature, 23 more are represented on museum shelves. This finding informed the team's global estimate for all fossil types: Of the fossil-bearing locations known to exist across the globe, only 3 to 4 percent are accounted for in published literature.

To-date, nearly 100,000 specimens from the Burke Museum’s invertebrate paleontology collection have been entered to the database. All are available online on the Burke Museum’s website. In addition, about half of these digitized collections are currently on Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio), a NSF-funded website for digitized collections. These specimens are now available for anybody in the entire world to see.

“You really can’t do evolution or biodiversity studies without looking at the fossil record. The vast majority of what people study in the fossil record is in museums,” Burke Museum Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology & Micropaleontology Dr. Elizabeth Nesbitt said. “We have the fossils from the Pacific Northwest and also the only paleontological collection in Washington state. Prior to this digitization process, very few people knew what was in our collections.”

"What this means is that within most of the great museums of the world there are specimens that have not been fully utilized to understand the nature of our planet, how ecosystems responded to climate change in the past, and how they'll respond moving forward," says lead author Dr. Charles Marshall, Director of UCMP and Fellow of the Academy. "We need that perspective to forecast the future."

So far, modern digital technologies have already allowed the team to harness the collective power of hundreds of thousands of specimens for coherent analysis. The research potential is vast: Teams continue to make new-to-science discoveries by simply delving deeper into their collections. Digitization also supports the enormous, upfront investment that museums have already made to collect and steward natural history specimens.

Marshall says the paper's coincidental publication shortly after Brazil's National Museum fire is a call to arms. "In the wake of the fire, my reaction was one of heartbreak, dismay, and shock. As scientists, seeing a fire like this is akin to learning your parent's house has just burnt to the ground. It's time for government and funding agencies to step up investment in the digitization of natural history collections and preserve our world heritage for decades to come."

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Note: This press release is repurposed from a California Academy of Sciences press release published on 20 September 2018.

Study Information: Quantifying the dark data in museum fossil collections as palaeontology undergoes a second digital revolution. C. R. Marshall, S. Finnegan, E. C. Clites, P. A. Holroyd, N. Bonuso, C. Cortez, E. Davis, G. P. Dietl, P. S. Druckenmiller, R. C. Eng, C. Garcia, K. Estes-Smargiassi, A. Hendy, K. A. Hollis, H. Little, E. A. Nesbitt, P. Roopnarine, L. Skibinski, J. Vendetti, L. D. White. Published in Biology Letters Volume 14, Issue 9 on 5 September 2018.


EPICC is a partnership of ten natural history museums united to digitize marine invertebrate fossils found in the eastern Pacific, including the California Academy of Sciences, John D. Cooper Center, National Museum of Natural History, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Paleontological Research Institution, University of Alaska Museum, University of California Museum of Paleontology, University of California Riverside Earth Science Museum, University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, and University of Washington Burke Museum. EPICC is funded through the National Science Foundation's Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program and affiliated with Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio).

About the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
The Burke Museum is the Washington State Museum of Natural History and Culture. The Burke is an active research museum that cares for 16 million geology, biology and cultural objects from Washington state and around the world, preserving natural and cultural history and generating new discoveries.

Founded in 1885 and designated the State Museum in 1899, the Burke Museum is the oldest public museum in Washington. The Burke Museum is located on the University of Washington campus, at the corner of NE 45th St. and 17th Ave. NE. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily, and until 8 pm on first Thursdays. Admission: $10 general, $8 senior, $7.50 student/ youth. Admission is free to children four and under, Burke members, UW students, faculty, and staff. Admission is free to the public on the first Thursday of each month. UW parking fees are $3 per hour up to 4 hours or $15 all day on weekdays, $5 flat fee on Saturdays before noon, and free parking after noon on Saturdays and all-day Sundays. Call 206.543.5590 or visit The Burke Museum is an American Alliance of Museums-accredited museum and a Smithsonian Affiliate.

Variety of marine invertebrate fossils

An assortment of marine invertebrate fossils from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture collections.
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum

Curator Dr. Elizabeth Nesbitt looks at fossils with Visitors

Dr. Elizabeth Nesbitt, curator of invertebrate paleontology & micropaleontology at the Burke Museum (left), examines invertebrate fossils with visitors at the museum’s annual Behind-the-Scenes Night.
Photo: Andrew Waits

Collection Manager Ron Eng looks at fossils with a Visitor

Ron Eng, geology and paleontology collection manager at the Burke Museum (right), discusses trilobite fossils with a visitor at the museum’s annual Behind-the-Scenes Night.
Photo: Andrew Waits


For high-resolution photos, interviews, and more information please contact:

Burke Museum Public Relations

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