Digitizing Fossils

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

cretaceous world illustration with a marine reptile and a nautilus
Cretaceous World - TCN logo, designed and drawn by Oscar Sanisidro

During the Late Cretaceous (100-66 Mya), the epicontinental Western Interior Seaway (WIS) divided North America in two during an interval of greenhouse conditions that may serve as a proxy for Earth’s near-term future. The WIS supported diverse ecosystems of microorganisms (e.g., foraminifera, diatoms, and coccolithophores), invertebrates (e.g., mollusks, arthropods, and echinoderms), and vertebrates, resulting in a richly abundant fossil record that has been heavily collected by paleontologists for over 100 years.

monument rocks with layered rocks on the right and a dark, ominous black cloud overhead
Monument Rocks, a famous Cretaceous locality in western Kansas, image by Richard Bryant.

Many iconic vertebrates from this system—especially large ray-finned fishes, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaurs—are on display at museums worldwide and amateur collectors have long treasured the fauna’s beautiful ammonoids. The WIS is also important scientifically for its potential in revealing how ancient marine species and ecosystems responded to the dynamic environment that characterized this greenhouse system. While the fossils of the WIS are well known taxonomically and very well represented in museum collections, their associated geographic and temporal locality data remain largely locked away on paper specimen labels in museum drawers. This “CRETACEOUS WORLD-TCN” seeks to greatly increase the scientific value of the eight most important U.S. museum collections of WIS fossils. Fundamentally, this TCN generated new data that will enable scientists to answer novel questions about the interactions between a diversity of species, ecosystems, and environmental changes during a critical interval of Earth’s history.  There were also a variety of broader impacts associated with the project including the creation of the Cretaceous Atlas of Ancient Life website, which is part of the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life, and an update to the Digital Atlas App for iPhone and iPads as well as the Digital Atlas Identify App.  A variety of Common Core- and Next Generation Science Standard-focused curricular materials were developed for K-12 education, and there were additions to public programs and exhibits at several museums. 

Former division students and staff working on the Cretaceous World project:

Student pointing at a computer
Kayla Kolis, who received a Master's in 2017
two researchers looking at fossil
Wade Leibach, who received a Bachelor's in 2020 with Julien Kimmig

Digitizing Fossils to Enable New Syntheses in Biogeography — Creating a PALEONICHES Thematic Collections Network

We completed databasing and georeferencing our large holdings of Late Paleozoic fossils.  This work was funded by the National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers and Advancing the Digitization of Biological Collections programs.  The museum collections and fossils 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 effect life on this planet and thus fundamental to addressing a variety of macroevolutionary and biogeographic questions.  Our study made this data available on line and accessible to scientists, facilitating many scientific analyses. 

We collaborated with Alycia Stigall from Ohio University and Jonathan Hendricks from the Paleontological Research Institution, as well as their partners, and Jim Beach from the Division of Informatics at the KUBI is also a co-PI. We also developed working partnerships with Yale University and the University of Texas Memorial Museum.  This work supported former graduate students Erin Saupe, Wes Gapp, Kayla Kolis, and Sally Chang as well as former post-docs Michelle Casey and Luke Strotz and numerous undergraduate students.  Our efforts considered ~ 450,000 specimens belonging to 900 species from several museums throughout the U.S., and focused on three different time periods in the history of life (the Pennsylvanian, Ordovician, and Neogene). We also created online digital atlases illustrating and describing these fossils and providing maps showing where they can be found at. These will be useful for educating amateur paleontologists and K-12 students about fossils both in classrooms and in the field.


  • Bruce S. Lieberman