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

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: http://www.digitalatlasofancientlife.org.

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, Matthew Brown (NSF Award 1602101)
    Yale University - Susan Butts, Christopher Norris (NSF Award 1601884)

    Protocols & Workflows

    Publications

    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, 1-7.

    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.

    Professional Presentations

    Other project documentation

    PENs

    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 (www.idigbio.org).

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

    Principal Investigators (PIs): Stephen Westrop