Bridging the two fossil records: Paleontology’s “big data” future resides in museum collections
Published:November 27, 2018
Warren D. Allmon, Gregory P. Dietl, Jonathan R. Hendricks, Robert M. Ross, 2018. "Bridging the two fossil records: Paleontology’s “big data” future resides in museum collections", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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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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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.