The Cretaceous World

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Digitization TCN: The Cretaceous World: Digitizing Fossils to Reconstruct Evolving Ecosystems in the Western Interior Seaway

The Cretaceous World TCN
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Project Summary
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Project Summary

Between 65 and 100 million years ago, during the time that dinosaurs walked the earth, a large, tropical seaway covered the central part of what is now North America. This seaway teemed with marine life. Snails and clams lived on the seafloor; ammonites, along with giant mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, sharks, and fish, swam about; at the same time early birds and pterosaurs floated on or flew above the seaway. What remains today is a prolific fossil record that has been collected by paleontologists for over 100 years. Notable fossils from this time period and region are on display at museums around the world. However, the vast bulk of fossils collected from this region are locked away in museum drawers. To provide scientists and the general public access to these fossils and their associated data, this project proposes to digitize invertebrate and vertebrate fossils from this time period and region, making information accessible through searchable electronic databases. Additionally, a variety of online resources illustrating and describing these fossils and mapping their distributions will be developed. A freely accessible online textbook of paleontology will be generated and a website and App will be developed to highlight the appearances, occurrences, and ages of constituent species, to help students and aspiring paleontologists identify and learn about these fossils. The project plans to generate a variety of curricular materials for K-12 education, including 3-D scans of fossils for free download and printed 3-D models for classroom use. Products of this project will also include workshops to engage science teachers and items to augment public programs and exhibits at participating institutions.

This work will greatly increase the scientific value of eight major U.S. museum collections of fossils. The museum collections contain large amounts of data useful for studying what causes marine species to migrate, go extinct, and evolve during a long period of greenhouse climate conditions similar to those our planet may soon experience. These data have relevance for evaluating how global change has and will continue to affect life on earth. An estimated 164,000 specimens collected from thousands of locations, in the region once occupied by the Western Interior Seaway, will be databased and georeferenced. Representatives from each of roughly 1,500 microfossil, invertebrate, and vertebrate species will be imaged. The digitized records will be made available online via individual museum databases, iDigBio, and iDigPaleo. The resultant data will enable scientists to answer questions about how different species interact and ecosystems change in the face of environmental shifts during a key time in the history of life. Moreover, the data will be ideal for use with an assortment of modern quantitative tools -including paleoecological niche modeling (PaleoENM) - and will help improve paleoclimate and paleoceanographic models. Finally, several undergraduate and graduate students will be trained. Results of the project will be published at the following url:

Current Research

Proposed research uses of data generated through The Cretaceous World project include:

  • revealing how ancient marine species and ecosystems responded to the dynamic environment that characterized this greenhouse system,
  • understanding interactions between a diversity of species, their endemicity, ecosystems, and environmental changes,
  • paleoecological niche modeling, and
  • improving paleoclimate and paleoceanographic models.
  • Project Websites & Social Media

    Digital Atlas of Ancient Life
    Digital Encyclopedia of Ancient Life
    The Cretaceous World TCN

    Citizen Science & Outreach Projects

    Project Leadership

    Project sponsor: University of Kansas (NSF Award 1602067)

    Principal Investigator (PI): Bruce Lieberman
    Co-Principal Investigators: James Beach, K. Christopher Beard, Maribeth Price, Laurie Anderson
    Additional Parties Involved: Julien Kimmig

    Project Collaborators

    Map of Collaborating Institutions

    American Museum Natural History - Neil Landman, Ruth O'Leary (NSF Award 1601891)
    Fort Hays State University - Laura Wilson (NSF Award 1601944)
    Paleontological Research Institute - Jonathan Hendricks (NSF Award 1645520)
    San Jose State University - Jonathan Hendricks (NSF Award 1601790)
    South Dakota School of Mines & Technology – Laurie Anderson, Maribeth Price
    University of Colorado at Boulder - Talia Karim (NSF Award 1601729)
    University of New Mexico - Corinne Myers (NSF Award 1601878)
    University of Texas at Austin - Ann Molineux, Rowan Martindale, Lisa Boucher, Matthew Brown (NSF Award 1602101)
    Yale University - Susan Butts, Christopher Norris (NSF Award 1601884)

    Protocols & Workflows


    Melott, A. L., Pivarunas, A., Meert, J. G., & Lieberman, B. S. (2017). Does the planetary dynamo go cycling on? Re-examining the evidence for cycles in magnetic reversal rate. International Journal of Astrobiology, 17:44-50.

    Simões, M. V., Lieberman, B. S., Soberón, J., & Peterson, A. T. (2017). Testing environmental correlates of clines in clades: an example from cassidine beetles. Insect Conservation and Diversity 10:472-482.

    Strotz, L. C., Simoes, M., Girard, M., Breitkreuz, L., Kimmig, J., and B. S. Lieberman. (2018). Getting somewhere with the Red Queen: Chasing a Biologically Relevant Definition, Biology Letters, v.14, p. 20170734.

    Strotz, L. C., Saupe, E. E., Kimmig, J., and B. S. Lieberman. (2018). Metabolic rates, climate and macroevolution: A case study using Neogene molluscs. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B. 285: 20181292, 1-6.

    Freymueller, N. A., Moore, J. R., & Myers, C. E. (2019). An analysis of the impacts of Cretaceous oceanic anoxic events on global molluscan diversity dynamics. Paleobiology, 1-16.

    Kolis, K. M., and B. S. Lieberman. (2019). Using GIS to examine biogeographic and macroevolutionary patterns in late Paleozoic cephalopods from the North American Midcontinent Sea," PeerJ,

    Kimmig, J., Meyer, R. C., and B. S. Lieberman. (2019). Herpetogaster from the early Cambrian (Series 2: Stage 4) of Nevada and its implications for the early evolution of deuterostomes," Geological Magazine, 156,172. http://doi:10.1017/S0016756818000389

    Professional Presentations

    Metabolic rates, climate, and macroevolution: a case study using Neogene molluscs. Session on Macroecology in the fossil record. 5th International Palaeontological Congress, Paris, France, July 10th, 2018 (presented by Luke Strotz).

    Digitizing fossils to advance macroevolutionary research. Keynote presentation for session on Big data in palaeontology: sharing knowledge for leveraging research options. 5th International Palaeontological Congress, Paris, France, July 9th, 2018 (presented by Bruce S. Lieberman).

    The Cretaceous World-TCN. Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio) Summit VII, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, November 2, 2017 (presented by Bruce S. Lieberman).

    Digitizing fossils to enhance macroevolutionary research: The Paleoniches and Cretaceous World Thematic Collection Networks. Topical session on Natural History Museums in the 21st Century—Programming for the Future while Preserving the Past I. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, October 25, 2017 (presented by Bruce S. Lieberman).

    Relating ecology to macroevolution using metabolic rates of Neogene mollusc communities. Topical session on Biodiversity dynamics in the face of environmental change: Integrating paleontological and neontological approaches to macroevolution II. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, October 22, 2017 (presented by Luke Strotz).

    The Cretaceous World-TCN. Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio) Summit VI, Tech Town, Chattanooga, TN, November 2, 2016 (presented by Bruce S. Lieberman).

    Other project documentation


    Digitization PEN: Expanding and Enhancing a TCN Digitizing Fossils to Reconstruct Evolving Ecosystems the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway

    The Sam Noble Museum (SNM) of the University of Oklahoma will join a Thematic Collections Network (TCN) of ten other institutions with extensive holdings of fossils from rocks that formed in a shallow sea, termed the Western Interior Seaway, which bisected North America during the late Cretaceous Period (65-100 million years ago). The late Cretaceous was a time of warmer, "greenhouse" climates and higher sea levels than those of today, and environments may have been similar to those predicted for the middle of the next century under some scenarios of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The data made available through this TCN offer an opportunity to answer a variety of questions dealing with the impact of climatic and sea level change on marine communities, and may provide critical information for predicting future outcomes for modern marine biodiversity. This project will digitize collection data from the SNM and make them accessible to the scientific community, industry, K-16 educators and students, and the public via a variety of web portals. Additional societal impacts of the project are made through a collaboration with the Education Department at the SNM, which will develop a field- and lab-based teacher workshop and web resources, and produce curricula that focus on biotic and environmental change over time, including sea level change, continental drift and other geological phenomena. The project also contributes to training of university students in modern digitization techniques and the generation of biodiversity data from museum collections, with up to five students participating annually.

    The Invertebrate Paleontology Collection at the SNM will digitize data for about 13,000 specimens from 450 localities at the northern and southern ends of the seaway, and thereby expand both the paleogeographic and paleoenvironmental reach of the project. Of particular importance are localities from the far northern margin of the seaway in Alaska and northwestern Canada that extend geographic coverage of the project by at least 4,000 km. They will allow the geographic ranges of species to be assessed fully, and will also provide insight into latitudinal variability in paleocommunity composition. The SNM?s holdings also include about 7,500 specimens from 240 localities in southern Oklahoma. They record paleocommunities in coastal regions of the seaway that lie shoreward of localities in Texas that will be contributed by other partners in the project. These data "fill in" the more proximal end of a shallow marine environmental gradient near the southern margin of the seaway, thereby expanding the scope of the project into onshore environments. Data will be aggregated by the TCN and shared with [ iDigBio].

    Project Sponsor: University of Oklahoma Norman Campus (NSF Award 1701160)

    Principal Investigators (PIs): Stephen Westrop

    The Cretaceous World: Connecting the Cretaceous Seas of North America

    An award is made to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's (NHMLA) Invertebrate Paleontology collections to support their contribution to the Cretaceous World Digitization Thematic Collections Network (CW-TCN) funded by NSF's Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Program. The primary goal of this project, "Connecting the Cretaceous Seas" Partner to Existing Network (CSC-PEN), is to digitize fossil marine invertebrates and vertebrates from the Western Interior Seaway (central North America), California, and the northeastern Pacific (Oregon-Alaska). These efforts will make thousands of new specimen records digitally available online. Collectively, these data will compliment the CW-TCN by filling gaps in the existing dataset, broadening its geographic and taxonomic coverage, and making these otherwise difficult to access collections significantly more visible to the interested public and research community. This information will facilitate current research aiming to better understand an interval of Earth's history during which warmer climates and marine flooding prevailed across North America. Results of this project will be communicated to the public through museum events, K-12 classroom programming, ongoing partnerships with local avocational paleontologists, and Virtual Field Experiences being coordinated by NHMLA on behalf of the CW-TCN.

    Benefits to be derived from this award include digitization of more than 32,000 marine invertebrate specimens from underrepresented areas of the Western Interior Seaway and Northeastern Pacific, and an additional 2,700 marine vertebrate fossils from the Western Interior Seaway and California. Notably, the addition of specimens from the Northeastern Pacific will create a bridge between recently digitized NHMLA collections from the Late Cretaceous of California with the existing focus of the CW-TCN in central North America. Such an expansion will complement current CW-TCN datasets, permitting the comparison of paleoecological niche modeling analyses in various paleoceanographic settings and enabling biogeographic comparisons of diversity change, ecosystem structure, and environmental change during a critical interval of Earth's history. Digitization will also involve the selective imaging of more than 2,000 specimens and georeferencing of over 750 localities. Notably, this project will digitally mobilize fossil data that have never before been available to aggregators, and, in doing so, will expand the NHMLA's capacity to share collections data through additional staff training. Digitized data from this project will be shared with iDigBio ( and made accessible via this resource.

    Project Sponsor: Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation (NSF Award 1902262)

    Principal Investigators (PIs): Austin Hendy (PI), Samuel McLeod (co-PI), Lindsay Walker (co-PI)