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The University of Wyoming

Department of Geology and Geophysics

Collection of Fossil Vertebrates
(a component of the Departmental Scientific Collections)

Improvement of Collection of Fossil Vertebrates


In September of 1998, Drs. Jason A. Lillegraven and Michael Cassiliano were awarded National Science Foundation grant DBI-9808626 towards improving the Collection of Fossil Vertebrates at The University of Wyoming. Additionally, recent renovations in the Department of Geology and Geophysics have greatly enhanced the quality and size of space committed to the paleontology group at the University. The help from NSF, has allowed great strides in enhancement in quality and use of the collection.

Two temporary workers were hired to help the permanent staff. Since they began, the combined team has performed systematic, cross-checked verifications for completeness and accuracy of all data associated with the collection. Each specimen was given a unique number, re-labeled, and stored in secure steel cabinets in our new facility. The entire collection has been organized by geologic age, with individual specimens sorted taxonomically within their localities. A cataloging backlog of more than 8,000 specimens was eliminated in this process. A number of specimens too large for the steel cabinets were organized taxonomically and placed on over-size shelving. While curating and repairing these oversized specimens, a number of Jurassic dinosaur bones from the original 1890's collection, which were thought missing, were found and reassembled. In addition to organizing the entire collection using a computer database for local use, the database has been brought online for use by the entire research community. A database for the cataloging of over 3,000 plaster and epoxy casts, and original specimens used specifically for teaching purposes was also developed.

This project not only has updated all records for specimens housed in the Collection of Fossil Vertebrates but has made information on holdings within the entire collection accessible to the general public. With accurate storage information and a searchable online database, fossils may now be located quickly and withdrawn for study.


Following is the final report submitted to NSF in regards to grant DBI-9808626.

Final Report for NSF-sponsored Collection Improvement Grant

Project Co-Directors -- Jason A. Lillegraven and Michael L. Cassiliano

DBI-9808626, "Improvement of Collection of Fossil Vertebrates, Department of Geology and Geophysics, The University of Wyoming", $197,385, 09/01/98-02/28/01, including a six-month, no-cost extension

Participant individuals:

Project Co-Directors: Jason A. Lillegraven and Michael L. Cassiliano

Graduate students: Jaelyn J. Eberle, Kelli C. Trujillo, Pennilyn Higgins, Michael W. Webb, Brian P. Kraatz, Jessie W. Scott, Regan E. Dunn
Undergraduate students: Cory M. Redman, Jerome P. Shinn, Wendy Hill

Others: John R. Foster, John H. Burris, Roland E. Miller, III, Jean-Pierre Cavigelli, Brent H. Breithaupt

Partner organization: Bureau of Land Management, State Office, Cheyenne, WY

Other Collaborators:
Donald W. Boyd, The University of Wyoming
Laurie J. Bryant, Bureau of Land Management


Activities and Findings:

Abbreviated History of this Grant

This was an award for curatorial support within a research facility, not a grant to conduct original research. The format and sequence of presentation of materials within this Final Report, therefore, differs substantively from standard guidelines for reporting results of research grants within Fastlane.

The greatest part of the required curatorial work that led to development of the proposal most closely matched published criteria for the "Collection Improvement" category of what at that time was known as the "Research Collections in Systematics and Ecology" (RCSE) program of NSF. Thus the title of the submitted proposal began with "Improvement of Collection of Fossil Vertebrates . . . ." Nevertheless, comparatively minor components of the required work, in addition, also qualified within published guidelines for the "Collection Computerization" category of RCSE. That dual-category nature of necessary tasks engendered unfortunate misinterpretation of a prior submission among members of the program's proposal review panel, which ultimately led to the singularly unusual construction of the successful proposal.

At the time the successful proposal was submitted, our Collection of Fossil Vertebrates was neither abandoned nor at risk of being orphaned. Indeed, its importance as a scientific research resource was widely recognized, both locally and nationally. Relative to the great majority of small paleontological collections across this country, ours was in relatively good condition. We take well deserved pride in pointing out that the comparatively good condition of the collection existed because we had worked consistently on it before submission of the proposal, using locally derived finances, to properly maintain a heavily used, rationally growing, regionally focused collection that we knew through practice to be a nationally useful research resource.

Nevertheless, the collection at that time did have serious weaknesses that flawed its optimal utility in the conduct of paleontological research. We wanted to eliminate those weaknesses, wherever possible. But our University could provide neither adequate manpower nor the financial wherewithal to hire additional qualified help for a systematic approach to the job. The project involved the simple goal of collection improvement, and it did not reflect necessity to rescue the collection from a threat of demise. The level of necessary work was in no way extraordinary, but it did exceed local capacity to complete it within a reasonable time. The task analysis developed for the proposal showed that we would be able to complete necessary work within two years of focused effort if two qualified staff members could be temporarily added. It is important to realize, as well, that we developed these proposals to NSF only after The University of Wyoming conducted internal and external reviews of the collection. These serious evaluations ultimately led to remarkably strong institutional commitment to the collection's long-term support. That commitment was exhibited in spirit through letters of support associated with the proposals and in substance through unusually high levels of cost-sharing via the budget.

The third submission of this proposal was the successful one. What was asked of NSF in each submission was that agency's participation in finalizing a long-term project of collection improvement that, for the most part, had been completed already. Roughly 90 percent of the baseline activities for the total job had been done already -- and that was accomplished almost totally from local finances and manpower. Most assuredly, we were not asking NSF to support the entire job. Our State-supported University already had chosen to accept extended obligations as a repository for research specimens that represent a nationally important research resource. That collection also makes possible a nationally competitive, graduate-level academic program in vertebrate paleontology at this University. Our principal goal was to make this paleontological repository as useful as possible in service to local and national research activities. Thus it seemed logical to solicit NSF's aid in completing the last 10 percent of that goal.

As can be seen through the following summaries, that goal has been achieved. In all sincerity, we thank the National Science Foundation for having made possible its timely completion.

Summary of Known Problems Prior to the Grant

The following weaknesses existed in the Collection of Fossil Vertebrates prior to award of the grant. A taxonomically based, hierarchical search of the collection could not be done with adequate reliability. Many clerical and transcription errors existed within specimen- and locality records. Many specimen- and locality-records were less complete than existing knowledge of provenance would allow. Many specimens were stored in unpadded boxes of inappropriate size or configuration. Many specimens were in need of hardening and/or minor repair. Many specimen lots (involving a single catalog number with inappropriately large taxonomic diversity and/or numbers of specimens) hindered research on what were otherwise excellent materials. Physical reordering was needed, including input of information on storage locations, to aid locating and using individual specimens. We lacked a dependable catalog of type specimens. A backlog on data entry existed, which at that time we estimated to be about 8,000 specimens. We knew enough about the collection to be almost certain that other problems would exist of which we remained oblivious. These combined weaknesses reduced the usefulness and reliability of the collection for purposes of conducting research. The existing database was not reliable enough to be put on-line for general use by the global research community. We recognized, however, that the vast majority of specific flaws could be eliminated through systematic cross-checks using our database management system in conjunction with first-hand re-examinations of specimens, maps, and locality-records. Although we had constantly attempted to correct these problems on our own, we lacked financial resources to hire additional qualified help for a time-efficient, systematic approach.

Summary of Local Efforts Toward Solution of Problems Existing Prior to the Grant

Local efforts toward solving the above-listed problems had a long and significant history. As examples, the following relevant advances were made through the two decades prior to receipt of this award: (1) thorough revision of curatorial procedures, with development of an inclusive administrative policy statement for the collection; (2) maintenance of most cataloging (even though the backlog was virtually total in 1976, and the collection had more than doubled in size through the following two decades), with most data being linked to locality- and topographic map-files; (3) purchase of secure steel cabinetry to meet collection growth; (4) generation of an electronic curatorial system and draft user-guide, with initiation of comparatively primitive on-line access; (5) construction and occupation of a paleontologically fully equipped, climate-controlled research building; (6) provision of a new (i.e., additional) full-time departmental staff position as Collections Manager; (7) completion of thorough internal and external reviews that led to University-wide high priority for long-term health of the collection; (8) revision of loan-records with initial attempts to recall overdue loans; (9) development of a taxonomically diverse, vertebrate paleontological teaching collection (via original specimens, locally made plaster and epoxy casts, and international specimen and cast exchanges); and (10) electronic cataloging of over 30,000 reference articles and books functionally relevant to the collection. These advances clarified recognition of specific needs for the present project. Our advances were effected with minimal financial assistance from outside the University. Almost all progress was made through efforts of local faculty, graduate students, and part-time curatorial staff -- with Departmental, College, and University administrative help in establishing priorities, making facilities available, and making long-term, national repository status and serious research commitments possible. Nevertheless, independent completion of remaining tasks lay beyond our means.

Summary of Primary Requests for NSF Assistance

We requested participation by NSF, through matching our local efforts, in facilitating a total cross-check of the collection, on a specimen-by-specimen, record-by-record basis. Our requests to NSF were restricted to: (1) temporary hiring of personnel to collaborate with existing staff; (2) providing a personal computer CPU for data entry, database checking, and steps toward on-line access; and (3) contributing curatorial supplies. The heart of the request was temporary addition of two appropriately trained paleontologists (a Ph.D.-level "Curatorial Associate" and a masters-level "Curatorial Technician"), each to work for two full years. The over-arching goal was to correct accumulated curatorial weaknesses, thus attaining national curatorial standards for the collection as quickly as possible. That would allow us to maintain the facility at a high standard, without dependence upon further external aid.

Summary of Specific Tasks Proposed to be Completed with Financial Assistance from NSF

The whole request revolved around being able to effect specimen repair and re-storage in combination with complete cross-checking and updating of the specimen-related database. We needed to examine the entire collection on a tray-by-tray, specimen-by-specimen basis. More specifically, we proposed to effect collection-wide processes of: (1) subdividing inappropriately large and/or diverse specimen lots into more research-friendly units; (2) correcting misidentifications; (3) cross-checking specimen-related data against locality-records; (4) adding missing (but available) data into specimen- and locality-records and replacing labels; (5) checking locality-records against map coordinates; (6) reconciling and correcting contradictory records via the database management system; (7) eliminating the cataloging backlog; and (8) modifying the database-management system as necessary, developing hard-copy printouts for archival purposes and everyday reference use, and preparing the database for on-line use. In suggesting these tasks, there existed no rational way to separate tasks related to "collection improvement" from tasks related to "collection computerization." Those two sets of activities are one and the same, although the total effort required was far greater for the former. We recommend that NSF take close note of this dilemma for prevention of similar conflicts.

Research Training:

Although this project was very much task-oriented in terms of collection revision, its completion had many beneficial effects upon our population of graduate students in vertebrate paleontology in residence during the last two years. They gained much greater appreciation for the necessities of maintaining strict quality-control on specimen-related paleontological data. They also gained respect for the power in research of a well-maintained paleontological database, and this especially became the case as the project neared completion. Our database now, almost out of common sense, comprises an integral part of each paleontological thesis and dissertation developed at this university.

More specifically, Mr. John H. Burris (our Curatorial Technician under the grant) is now in a paleontological Ph.D. program at Michigan State University; experience gained from this project certainly aided his competitiveness for that educational opportunity. Similarly, Dr. John R. Foster (our Curatorial Associate under the grant) was hired in the post of Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of Western Colorado. The two-year experience with our project also greatly enhanced his competitiveness for that professional position. Finally, Mr. Brian P. Kraatz was our key person in cleaning up the collection's electronic database. His acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Integrative Biology at the University of California (Berkeley) was in no small measure influenced by that practical experience with large databases.

Education and Outreach:

This was a facilities grant, in which the all-pervasive goal was to improve the usefulness of a public research collection. To us, that goal represents the purest form of development of potential for "education and outreach." The fossils themselves, stored securely and contextually linked to data on their provenance, will serve indefinitely as sources of verifiable information useful to the development of student theses, research articles, book manuscripts (esoteric and popular), and hands-on public education in the subjects of paleontology, evolution, and Earth history. These materials now serve as a wellspring of opportunity for education and outreach at all conceivable educational levels.

Publications and Products:

Because of the very nature of this collection-improvement award, scientific publications based upon the grant itself were not a priority. One abstract (Kraatz, 2000; presented as a poster at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Mexico City) relates to arising questions about the degrees of access via the Internet that are appropriate for public paleontological research collections. Mr. Kraatz used The University of Wyoming's Collection of Fossil Vertebrates as a general model for access to similar databases over the Internet.

[Kraatz, B., 2000, Accessing vertebrate paleontological collections over the Internet [abstract]: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, v. 20, Suppl. to no. 3, p. 52A.]

We now have all standard, specimen-based information associated with our Collection of Fossil Vertebrates in an electronic database. This database is controlled by FileMaker Pro 5.0 software for Macintosh, and we established many fields having relational linkages. Our database also includes all known locality information that is relevant to each specimen. The database is hierarchically secured using several designated levels of password-controlled accessibility. Our Collections Manager has the highest authority for access, and he is responsible for daily and weekly backup procedures for the database.

Although this was not stated in our proposal to NSF as a primary goal of the project, the electronic database in the early fall of 2000 became almost completely available on the Internet (relevant addresses are presented below). Detailed locality-records are the only information about the collection not globally available via the web. Specifics of locality data must be specially requested from our Collections Manager, and such information is released only to known, qualified researchers. Detailed locality information is not provided to representatives of the commercial fossil market.

We have provided an Apple iMac computer as a dedicated server (using platform independent FileMaker Pro 5.0 software) for Internet access to a copy of the relational database. Associated with the Internet-accessible version of the database is: (1) a "How To" user's guide to aid in remotely searching the database; (2) a full copy of our Statement of Policies for the Departmental Collections of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, The University of Wyoming; (3) loan policies; (4) key personnel; (5) many links to related departmental research and teaching facilities; and (6) a specific acknowledgment of the importance of DBI-9808626 to the collection (including full text of the present Final Report). The database for the Internet server is updated weekly, and the policy statement is reviewed annually by a Departmental Committee on Scientific Collections.

The following are specific sections (and their relevant Internet addresses) useful in on-line access to information within the Collection of Fossil Vertebrates:


Home page for the collection -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Paleo_home.html;
Description of the collection -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Collection_Summary.html;
Introduction to the database -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Database_Intro.html;
Database itself (to initiate a search) -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Search_DB.php;
"How To" search page -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Search_How_To.html;
Statement of policies -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Collection_Policy.html;
Summary of loan policy -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Loan_Policy.html;
Associated personnel -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Personnel.html; and
Acknowledgment of DBI-9808626 -- http://paleo.gg.uwyo.edu/Collections_Grant.html.

Contributions:

Specific Tasks Accomplished

The single most important statement that can be made here is that we successfully completed every single goal that was specified in the grant proposal for DBI-9808626 (see above for summary). Additionally, during existence of the grant we also managed to get the collection's database into almost full accessibility on the Internet (also summarized above).

Internet access of the collection, by the way, was not specified in the proposal as a component to be funded through the grant. Indeed, that work was supported principally through ancillary sources. Such rapid development of Internet access, however, became a reality only because of combined effects of the specific tasks completed through support by the grant. Furthermore, from the beginning, we considered establishment of Internet access to the collection by the general research community to qualify as a worthwhile undertaking only after the extensive processes of data verification, correction of errors, and addition of missing information were completed.

The following is a listing of the specific tasks that were completed under support of NSF grant DBI-9808626:
1. all outstanding loans were reviewed, and overdue loans were recalled;
2. computer-generated labels were printed and associated with specimens, vials, storage boxes, and cabinets;
3. specimens were arranged in boxes by taxon and by locality within storage drawers;
localities were arranged by North American Land Mammal "Age" or, if more appropriate, ordered by other general stratigraphic criteria;
4. identifications, classifications, elements preserved, and storage information were corrected, enhanced, or updated and entered into the electronic database;
5. many "missing" specimens were relocated;
6. many specimens were partially or completely prepared from enclosing rock;
7. oversized fossils were re-associated, restoratively prepared, re-labelled, and provided with protective support molds;
8. oversized specimens were arranged systematically into keyed shelves and linked to the database;
9. individual numbers were provided for most specimens catalogued previously by lot numbers;
10. a total of 15,615 new specimen numbers from backlogged, previously unidentified material (our original estimate of such specimens, as cited in the proposal, was only about 8,000) was entered into the database;
11. electronic records were updated for an additional 22,183 specimen numbers (including, as listed by North American Land Mammal "Age," records from the Rancholabrean, 483 specimens; Irvingtonian, 387 specimens; Hemphillian, 168 specimens; Clarendonian, 6 specimens; Barstovian, 801 specimens; Hemingfordian, 1,010 specimens; Arikareean, 193 specimens; Whitneyan, 40 specimens; Orellan, 1,214 specimens; Chadronian, 649 specimens; Uintan, 859 specimens; Bridgerian, 2,303 specimens; Wasatchian, 2,056 specimens; Clarkforkian, 18 specimens; Tiffanian, 2,126 specimens; Torrejonian, 1,426 specimens; Puercan, 461 specimens; Cretaceous, 1,845 specimens; Jurassic, 93 specimens; and Triassic, 12 specimens);
12. a total of 221 new locality-records was entered into the database;
13. standardized taxonomy of higher categories was applied to the entire collection using McKenna and Bell (1997) for mammals and Carroll (1988) for non-mammals;
14. several samples of previously unexamined, screen-washed concentrate were sorted for identifiable specimens;
15. specimens were identified to lowest appropriate taxonomic level as based upon condition of fossils, available comparative specimens, and available literature;
16. all type specimens (62 holotypes and 8 paratypes) were accounted for in the collection; and
17. a new electronic database (not listed on the Internet) for the Vertebrate Paleontological Teaching Collection (including a global collection of casts and specimens that also is highly useful to us for comparative research purposes) was created, and more than 3,000 specimen-records were entered into that system.

Finally, we did put the entire specimen catalogue (exclusive of detailed locality data) on-line via the Internet -- in association with introductory information about the collection and a "How To" guide for remotely performing searches of the database. As discussed above, however, this was not a goal to be supported by the grant.

Summary Statement about Contributions from this Grant to Scientific Resources

For many years prior to submission of the proposal leading to NSF grant DBI-9808626, and with stated commitments toward the long-term, The University of Wyoming had accepted formal responsibility as Wyoming's only repository for vertebrate paleontological specimens recovered on federal lands. Recent history of federal retrenchment in the Rocky Mountain region shows that these are the sorts of long-term duties to the benefit of national paleontological enquiry that not even large agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey have been able to maintain. Despite Wyoming's prolonged administrative commitment and best individual efforts, our collection was plagued by mostly inherited curatorial problems that remained beyond local capabilities to rectify.

NSF's program known formerly as Research Collections in Systematics and Ecology was (and its successor program remains) the only federal agency relevant to our needs to correct long standing curatorial problems. Only the Biological Research Collections program of today has, as a stated part of its mission, the capacity to aid paleontological research collections that are actively growing and regularly used and that may require periodic support for physical and curatorial improvements to keep pace with growth and to enhance research use. Thus, because we wanted to enhance the scientific reliability and practical utility of our collection, we applied for funding to make those goals possible. We asked (former) RCSE, following its stated mandate and historical tradition, to participate in our local efforts toward collection improvement, in which we would apply the highest achievable curatorial standards. Although there were mis-starts, our application ultimately became successful and was funded in full.

Through NSF's help:

(1) our prime goal of collection improvement was completed on time, specimens thought lost were salvaged, and much valuable information was added to the database;

(2) it then became realistic, because of our ability to solve most of the existing curatorial problems, to globally open our collection's database via the Internet;

(3) our ability to respond to inquiries on collection holdings from individual researchers and governmental land-managing agencies is now improved, we can provide more thorough information, and we can do it much more reliably; and

(4) the training of young professionals will be enhanced in quality. Because we successfully completed every single proposed task, highly beneficial consequences for the local and national paleontological research communities will emerge. All users will benefit from the collection's increased physical utility, data reliability, and flexibility in performing technical searches of the database and development of summarized data for research or administrative reports. The more efficient arrangement of the storage system also will strengthen physical protection of specimens and reduce chances of their inadvertent loss. Completion of this project brings the collection to a level of curation at which locally supported personnel should be expected to keep up with rationally planned, anticipated rates of future growth.

We sincerely hope, through the general success of DBI-9808626, that personnel at NSF will be further encouraged to acknowledge the advantages and wisdom of regularizing support for relatively small systematic collections that are recognized to be nationally important research resources.