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article imageEssential Science: Unpicking ‘dark data’ in fossil collections

By Tim Sandle     Oct 1, 2018 in Science
Scientists have begun to use new technologies to help quantify the vast and curious fossil finds that are stored, and in some cases remained untouched for decades, on museum shelves.
Over centuries fossils have been collected and housed in museum stores, with very few items put on display. As to how many there are, and how significant many of these specimens are, it is uncertain because few have been cataloged and even fewer have been digitally recorded. A research team states there is an imperative to do so.
An example of this need to delve deep into museum collections is with Brazil's National Museum, which was subject to a major fire in September 2018. The fire at Rio de Janeiro’s 200-year-old National Museum began on September 3, and much of its archive of 20 million items is believed to have been destroyed.
Sabre-toothed tiger fossil head and neck
Sabre-toothed tiger fossil head and neck
Wallace63 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Teams of scientists have been working through the damage to try to determine how many specimens, and of which type, have survived. For this they are using old-fashioned techniques of physical examination together with a trawl through databases on fossil collections, as Laboratory Manager magazine has reported.
World's fossil databases
Databases of collections are vital to researchers. However, many tend to contain inaccuracies, and many are incomplete. Indeed, some scientists are of the view that only three to four percent of recorded fossil locations from across the globe are accounted for in published scientific literature. The consequence of this is many specimens, stored in the archives of museums, that have either never been published in research papers or recorded by digital means.
In an attempt to capture this so-called ‘dark data’, scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, University of California Museum of Paleontology are calling upon fellow researchers to invest in suitable digital technologies as so to preserve their collections.
Writing in Biology Letters ("Quantifying the dark data in museum fossil collections as palaeontology undergoes a second digital revolution"), the researchers see this as the second digital revolution (the first being the use of the computer to help record fossil findings and the formation of the "The Paleobiology Database"). They write: "now a second digital revolution is under way in palaeontology—the digital aggregation of these unpublished and largely inaccessible fossil collections and their metadata."
The potential from such exercises is considerable. Researchers will be able to make new science discoveries, which can be shared worldwide, by simply delving deeper into their collections and capturing the information digitally.
The researchers have begun putting together a new digital database, capturing information from the new wave analysis. The new database is called the EPICC (Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic) and it compiles marine invertebrate fossils that span the past 66 million years and hail from Chile to Alaska. The aim is to make 1.6 million specimen records available online through digital data and photographs.
Dickinsonia menneri Vendian (Ediacaran) Fossil (February 18  2017)
Dickinsonia menneri Vendian (Ediacaran) Fossil (February 18, 2017)
Masahiro miyasaka (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Long-term their aim is for the "development of a one-stop point of online access to the digital data, the Integrated Digitized Biocollections database."
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we considered new research which determined there are four personality types. The new study could alter the fundamentals of psychology, overturning established paradigms.
The week before week we looked at new research for decoding depression. This involved translating mood signals as a novel means for the treatment of affective disorders, like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder.
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