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ABSTRACT

There are two fossil records: the physical fossil record, which consists of specimens, and the abstracted fossil record, which is made up of data derived from those specimens. Mseum collections are the conduit between these two fossil records. Over the past several decades, the abstracted fossil record has provided many important insights about the major features of life’s history, but it has relied mostly on limited types of data (primarily taxonomic occurrence data) derived from ultimately finite literature sources. In contrast, specimen collections and modern tools for digitizing information about them present an opportunity to transform paleobiology into a “big data” science. Digitally capturing non-traditional (e.g., paleoecological, taphonomic, geochemical, and morphological) data from millions of specimens in museum collections and then integrating them with other unique big data resources has the potential to lead to the most important paleontological discoveries of the twenty-first century.

What we know about the past record relied heavily on museum collections—the cumulation of centuries of investigation of the fossil record. The sample of past biodiversity will accumulate only with continued exploration of the fossil record … and restudy of existing collections….

—J. Sepkoski (1992, p. 80)

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