April 16, 2016 Comments (0) Views: 3923 Biology, Environment, Resources, Sciences, Technology, Totally Rad

Explore Earth’s past with these tools

I’ve written an article about exploring rocks around the world using a geology database called Macrostrat, but what about the things that we find in those rocks? Human’s have unearthed an astonishing number of fossils and other clues to what the Earth was like in the past.  So many, in fact, that they need tools to keep track of them. Databases, like the Paleobiology Database and the Neotoma Paleoecology Database (both based at the University of Wisconsin Madison), allow scientists – and you – to explore and analyze the history of life in ways that were unimaginable not long ago. By organizing the locations, types, ages, and relationships between these discoveries, we can begin to tease out new answers to big questions about the history of life and climate on Earth.

Livingstone coring at Lake Junin, Peru

A core sample from a lake in Peru. (

Let’s take a look at the Neotoma Paleoecology Database. First of all, what does paleoecology mean? Essentially, it’s using dead stuff and other clues we find in the ground to tell us about what a place was like and what lived there in the past. A great example of a tool paleoecologists use is pollen from sediment core samples. Scientists find a lake, push a tube into the mud at the bottom of the lake, then pull it out to take it back to the lab. I work for a lab called LacCore, and this is essentially its entire function. As silly as that might sound, scientists can learn profound things about the past from these cores. Sediment and other materials from the landscape, like pollen, are continually transported into lakes by rain and wind where they sink and end up as mud at the bottom of the lake. Over thousands and in some cases millions of years, this mud builds up in layers and, in the oldest lakes, can become hundreds of meters thick.

The deeper in the core sample you look, the older the mud that you’re looking at is, and, if you’re clever, you can use that mud as a kind of time machine to get a picture of what that location was like in the past.

Pollen from an Eastern White Pine, through a microscope.

Pollen from an Eastern White Pine, through a microscope. (

Say that in one section of the core, way down, you find a bunch of pollen that indicates a Pine forest. Then, looking further up the core and so closer to our point in time, you see no Pine pollen. Instead, the only pollen you can find looks like grass pollen. It’s pretty clear, then, that there was a Pine forest, something happened, and it ended up being replaced by grasslands. By looking at many different components and characteristics of the sediment in the core, scientists can begin to weave a cohesive story about the geology, ecology, and climate of the area around the lake.

So that sounds powerful enough on its own, but what if you want to understand the changes for an area larger than just one single lake? What if you need to figure out how climate across continents, even the entire planet, has responded to changes in the past. Understanding these large scale shifts is one of the best ways to create and test our predictions; and as our society continues to grow, consume, and emit we’re in desperate need of accurate predictions in order to plan for a challenging future.

Shown here are places where pollen datasets have been collected by scientists, NW Minnesota.

Places where pollen datasets have been collected in NW Minnesota. Find out what data is available from your region at

Answering these large scale questions about Earth requires large scale datasets. That’s not easy when data is revealed one core, one fossil, one measurement at a time. That’s where databases come in like NeotomaDB and PaleobioDB. Scientists contribute data, it is vetted and curated by experts in the field, and then, since much of science is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars through organizations like the National Science Foundation, both researchers and the public have access to droves of information collected through the years by scientists.

All this data can get overwhelming, so visualizing in useful ways is needed. Paleobiology Database has the PaleobioDB Navigator, and Neotoma has the Neotoma Explorer. These tools allow you to plot data on a map allowing you to see trends and ask questions that individual pieces of data could never have answered or provoked on their own.  They also allow you to find out what scientists have been up to in your area; and I can almost guarantee they’ve been up to something.  

PaleobioDB Navigator deals with deep time, and the continents are far from sitting still on the scales of Earth history, so in order to understand the data in context, it must be combined with our understanding of the movement of landmasses through time. Using a tool and dataset called GPlates, PaleobioDB can easily move the continents to their positions at whatever time you’re interested in. You can then display fossils from that same time period, allowing you to notice patterns that on today’s map would seem absurd. Fossils that are today separated by entire oceans were once part of the same environment, and their current fossil distributions and locations only make sense when you’ve corrected for the slow but steady march of the tectonic plates through time.

Where were the tectonic plates 100 million years ago? What kind of things were living on them? (

Flyover Country lets you explore dinosaur and mammal fossils from Neotoma and PaleoBioDB.

Flyover Country lets you explore dinosaur and mammal fossils from Neotoma and PaleobioDB.

From there, more complex questions can be asked. Like what is the history of the diversity of species in the past? Are some types of fossils preferentially preserved leading to a bias in the fossil record? How do the plants and animals of our time compare to times in the past? Are humans causing an unprecedented extinction event?

If you have a bit of programming experience or are looking to learn some, both resources have application programming interfaces (API’s) that allow you to access the data programmatically, so you can use it in projects, apps, or websites of your own creation. I’m part of a team doing just that. We’ve created an app for finding out about the landscape that you’re hiking, driving, or flying over and it pulls fossil location data (and soon more!) from both Neotoma and PaleobioDB. Try it out for free here.

With millions of research dollars having been used to collect and examine this data, it’s wonderful to have such easy and direct access to it to answer and explore questions of your own.

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