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The Digitization of Marine Invertebrate Fossils Brings Ancient Sea Life to Light

Tucked Away Fossil Collections in Museums Represent So-Called 'Dark Data'
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Cal State Fullerton student Jolene Ditmar spent countless hours identifying, cataloging and photographing Orange County marine invertebrate specimens, such as aquatic mollusks, clams and sand dollars, that lived over the last 66 million years following the extinction of dinosaurs.

Ditmar was part of a multi-institution project to collect fossil data on marine invertebrates and digitalize collections to make them available to scientists and the public. Paleontologists Nicole Bonuso and James Parham, both associate professors of geological sciences, led the CSUF effort, with support from graduate student Crystal Cortez and undergraduates.

“The vast majority of the data lies tucked away in museum drawers waiting to be rediscovered,” Bonuso said. “This is what we call ‘dark data.’ Many of the collections throughout the eastern Pacific, and throughout the country, including those collected here in Orange County, have been collected decades ago and many have not been catalogued, thus they are invisible.

“Our project focused on opening those museum cabinet drawers to provide global access to data that was otherwise only accessible to a limited few.”

The researchers’ contributions, recently published in Biology Letters, focuses on digitizing marine invertebrates — organisms that live in the ocean and don’t have a backbone — in the eastern Pacific, which includes California, Oregon and Washington. Bonuso and Cortez ’16 (B.S. geology), a graduate student in environmental studies, are co-authors on the paper.

“Our work allows researchers worldwide to access data that otherwise may be intangible,” added Ditmar ’17 (B.A. earth science), also a graduate student in environmental studies.

The CSUF researchers were part of EPICC — Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic — a collaboration of 10 natural history museums and academic institutions. Charles Marshall of the University of California Museum of Paleontology is the paper’s lead author who directed the National Science Foundation-funded project. A $500,000 NSF award to CSUF in 2014 for a project directed by Parham to preserve and protect Orange County fossils also supported the university’s contributions to EPICC.

According to the paper, a small fraction, or 3 to 4 percent of fossil localities — sites where fossils have been found — worldwide are currently accounted for in the online Paleobiologist Database, the most comprehensive digital data repository known, Bonuso noted. Orange County had 72 fossil sites entered into the Paleobiology Database before the EPICC study, said Bonuso, who led digitization protocols and managed the team of female student researchers. As a result of the EPICC project, 810 new fossil localities have been added, increasing the number of localities to 882.

Through CSUF’s contributions to EPICC, 42,000 specimen records, mostly of bivalves, such as oysters, clams and mussels, from Orange County are now among the EPICC collection, and are available online at Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio).

This project is important because it captures the fossil record and can provide a glimpse into understanding how organisms responded to ecological and environmental changes, Bonuso said.

“From this history, we can tell stories about how life evolved and about how, and why, organisms proliferate and become extinct, giving us predictive power pertaining to life’s future,” she said.

The project also gave CSUF undergraduates the opportunity to work on research, and develop problem-solving and independent-thinking skills. The other students involved in the project are Victoria Sererin ’18 (B.S. geology), a graduate student in environmental studies, and Kaycee Coonen ’18 (B.S. biological science).

“Dr. Bonuso has gone above and beyond to see me succeed,” Ditmar said. “All of these lessons have given me the tools I need to be successful in my current field of paleontological mitigation, and have fueled my passion for paleontology.”