‘Digital museum’ brings millions of fossils out of the dark

The skull of Triceratops has been CT-scanned

Kathy Hollis from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, who is leading the project there, explained: “We are trying to make our entire collection available digitally for researchers to use online from anywhere in the world.

“And we’re pretty sure that this is the largest fossil collection in the world.

“We have over 40 million specimens in the collection – it records the entire history of life, so if it has a fossil representative, it’s likely here within the collection.”

Items on public display in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the collections stored away in drawers.

“And there are drawers here in the museum that haven’t been opened for decades,” said Kathy Hollis.

That is problematic if scientists want to use all of those specimens – the collective evidence of millions of years of evolution on our planet – to understand how life works and changes.

“So we’re bringing all of this data out into the light for research,” she added.

In a recent paper in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, scientists described the process of digitising museum collections as mobilising “dark data”. The authors said this would enhance researchers’ ability to understand how our environment changed in the past and therefore to build a picture of the impact of future environmental change.

Can a digital fossil ever be as useful as the real thing?

In some cases, it is far more useful.

For the vast majority of the digitisation project, museums will capture high quality images and all of the key information – age, species, where the specimen was discovered – to make available online.

That alone is valuable – studying digital marine fossils, for example, is already enabling researchers to understand how marine life in changing sea levels and ocean temperatures.

But the most detailed digital data can actually be better than a real fossil.

Prof Emily Rayfield at the University of Bristol uses CT scans of dinosaur skulls and other bones to build computer models for research.

“We can actually use the digital data to test how these animals functioned,” she told BBC News.

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