Ordovician rugose corals from Ohio.

Ordovician rugose corals from Ohio.

The goal of the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life project is to provide a free resource to help individuals identify and better understand fossil species from particular regions and time intervals. In this respect, each Digital Atlas is akin to the types of field guides that naturalists might use to identify bird or plant species. Four Digital Atlases have already been developed or are under active construction:

The data underlying each Digital Atlas are derived from specimens in museum collections that have been “digitized.”

One aspect of digitization involves converting written descriptions of fossil localities associated with specimens (e.g., “found 4 miles north of Miller’s Crossing”) into precise latitude-longitude values that can be “pin-pointed” on maps using geographic information systems (GIS). This process is called georeferencing. Another aspect of digitization is to capture digital images of fossil specimens and share these with the public. This digitization effort will allow researchers to ask new questions of old data. For example, it will now become possible to track how species geographic ranges changed over time in response to environmental changes.

TCN Projects Supporting the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life

Two “Thematic Collections Networks” (TCNs)–funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program and organized by Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio)–have or are continuing to provide digitized data in support of the Digital Atlas Project:

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

Castle Rock, Gove County, Kansas: an outcropping of Cretaceous rock formed when Kansas and much of the central North America was covered by an ancient ocean.

Castle Rock, Gove County, Kansas: an outcropping of Cretaceous rock formed when Kansas and much of the central North America was covered by an ancient ocean.

Logo for the Cretaceous World TCN project.

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–the Digital Encyclopedia of Ancient Life–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 (see list of partners below). 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.

For frequent updates about the project, visit the project blog at: http://www.digitalatlasofancientlife.org/updates/.

Digitizing Fossils to Enable New Syntheses in Biogeography – Creating a PALEONICHES-TCN

Early Pleistocene mollusk fossils from Florida.

Early Pleistocene mollusk fossils from Florida.

Museum collections of fossils, along with their associated locality data, provide millions of records representing data on the temporal and geographic distribution of species in deep time. However, to reach their greatest scientific potential, these collections data need to be available on-line and in a format that facilitates quantitative biogeographic analyses.

Through the PaleoNiches-TCN, information about the age and precise location of thousands of fossil specimens from parts of several key paleontological collections (see below) have been entered into electronic databases. During this process, computer programs for collections were enhanced to allow paleontological specimens to be integrated with modern specimen data, thereby benefiting research on the distributions of organisms over time. Through our efforts, tens of thousands of specimens belonging to hundreds of species from three intervals of time–the Ordovician, Pennsylvanian, and Neogene–were digitized. Further, the PaleoNiches-TCN initiated the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life project (see above). An ‘app’ was also created so that information from these Digital Atlases can be used on handheld devices out in the field (access the app at the Apple App Store).

The museum collections and fossils digitized as part of the PaleoNiches-TCN provide large amounts of data useful for studying what causes species to migrate, go extinct, or evolve over long time periods. They are of great relevance for considering how global change has and will continue to affect life on this planet. The PaleoNiches-TCN makes these data available online (iDigBio) and accessible to scientists, facilitating many scientific analyses. The online and portable device Digital Atlases are useful for educating amateur paleontologists and K-12 students about fossils both in classrooms and in the field. The project has also provided training to university students and scholars. This project was supported as part of the National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program at the National Science Foundation and all data resulting from this award are available through the iDigBio portal.

The PaleoNiches digitization project began in 2012 and is nearing its completion. Participant institutions and principal investigators include:

Use of Materials from this Webpage

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

If you use content from this website or the individual Digital Atlases in a publication, please cite our overview paper in Palaeontologia Electronica:

Hendricks, J. R., Stigall, A. L., and Lieberman, B. S. 2015. The Digital Atlas of Ancient Life: delivering information on paleontology and biogeography via the web. Palaeontologia Electronica, Article 18.2.3E.

Project Management and Funding

The Paleontological Research Institution serves as the home of the Digital Atlas project, which is managed by Jonathan Hendricks.


The Digital Atlas of Ancient Life project is supported by the National Science Foundation (DBI 1206757, DBI 1206769, DBI 1206750, and DBI-1645520).