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Bringing fossils into the digital age, one shell at a time

L.A. County's Natural History Museum is probably best known for its dinosaur bones and dioramas, but the institution is also home to a vast collection of fossils used by researchers around the world.

It has millions of specimens that help tell the tale of life on Earth and give clues about our planet's future.

The problem is, for decades the only way to know for sure what was in the collection was to visit in person and search the cabinets. Now, NHM is hoping to change that by bringing its fossils online.

"We say we are unlocking the cabinets now," noted Austin Hendy, the collections manager for the NHM's invertebrate paleontology department.

NHM stores its impressive collection of 10 million invertebrate fossils in a warehouse in Carson, CA. It's full of grey cabinets packed with shells of clams, oysters, snails and more. Some specimens are half a billion years old.

(An example of the range of specimens in the NHM's invertebrate paleontology fossil collection)

Jann Vendetti, NHM's Assistant Curator of Malacology (the study of mollusks), likens the place to a library, but a dysfunctional one.

"There’s a card catalogue to some of it and you would have to come to us and we would have to just search around and try to find the book you are interested in," she joked.

"That’s not how a library works, nor should it be the way a collection works."

This problem isn't unique to NHM.

Museums don't have a universal filing method like the Dewey Decimal System and for decades many museums simply didn’t have the money or person power to properly catalogue all the fossils they had gathered.

This creates a problem for researchers.

"If [the fossils] were collected historically, 50, 60 years ago, and those museums have not catalogued those collections, they are invisible to us."

These "invisible" fossils are often called “dark data.”

Dark data can stymie research, for example if there is a fossil somewhere that would provide important insights for a researcher, but they can't easily search for it and find it.

To help solve this problem, the National Science Foundation gave NHM and several other west coast institutions a grant of $2 million to digitize marine fossils.

It’s part of a growing effort to get the collections from the United State's roughly 1,600 museums online.

"I think the real difficult part that I focus on all the time is imaging," said Gil Nelson, a digitization specialist at iDigBio. It’s an organization dedicated to helping curators get their collections online.

Nelson says his team is working on the best protocols for creating useful images to go with digital records, as well as a way of deciding what needs to be imaged and what doesn't.

He noted there are probably 500 million specimens in US collections that need to be brought online. So far the iDigBio database has about 50 million records representing about 150 million specimens.

NHM's Cambria Rodriguez is hoping to add more.

She’s a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills and works part time photographing the museum’s collection.

It requires her to constantly adjust the lights, prop up fossils with Styrofoam and occasionally even hand scrub them before photo shoots.

(An example of how specimens are photographed for digital records.)

She says the job is a lot more pressure than one would assume. After all, scientists from around the world may one day refer to these pictures in their research.

"It’s intimidating," said Rodriguez.

"You don’t know who is going to look at it in the future and you don’t know if they are going to say, 'I can’t get anything out of this because it’s a bad picture.'"

Since she started last summer, Rodriguez has photographed about 2,000 fossils. NHM plans to finish 200,000 over the next 4 years. After that, there will still be millions to go.

So, in the meantime, researchers like Nicole Bonuso will have to do things the old fashioned way. She is a professor at Cal State Fullerton and she took her students to the warehouse in Carson to study oysters.

Bonuso says most students aren’t so lucky that they can just drive to a collection like this. They have to travel far, sometimes by plane.

"It all costs money," she said.

"But if you had digital collections, you can actually download data, you could actually see the fossils digitally. So to me it’s a low cost way of actually doing research."

After all, digging up a fossil is hard enough the first time. Hopefully in the future, scientists won’t need a second expedition just to find a fossil buried deep in a museum.