Digital Atlas of Ancient Life is Online

by Shari Ellis

An exciting new paleo resource is now online! The Digital Atlas of Ancient Life is designed to help scientists and avocational fossil collectors identify their fossil finds much like field guides help naturalists. The resource also has potential to enrich K16 education.

At this time, the project is focused on fossils from three time periods and regions:

  • Digital Atlas of Ancient Life
    Digital Atlas of Ancient Life

    Ordovician-aged (485 to 444 million years ago) fossils from the Cincinnati area. Link to Ordovician Atlas

  • Pennsylvanian-aged (323 to 299 million years old) fossils from the American midcontinent (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas). Link to Pennsylvanian Atlas
  • Neogene-aged (23 to 2.6 million years old) fossils from the southeastern United States. Link to Neogene Atlas

Besides helping to identify and better understand fossils from particular regions, the atlases include information on the geologic setting and stratigraphic framework for the focal region (e.g., Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life). Additional information about fossil collecting locations, relevant links, and references used are currently available on the Ordovician Atlas and are being developed for the other digital atlases.

The project team is also developing formal lesson plans for each digital atlas and for the overall project. The lesson plans now available on the Ordovician Atlas site were developed in collaboration with science education faculty and are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards. These lesson plans utilize a 5E learning cycle approach that emphasizes early exploration of materials prior to explanation and elaboration of concepts. Some of these activities emphasize place-based education and prompt students to explore how familiar environments and associated life forms have changed over time.

Exercises under development for the Neogene Atlas will ask students to use map data to explore how ancient species responded to environmental changes, including whether the geographic ranges of individual species changed over time (e.g., by comparing the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene occurrence maps).

For more advanced students there is a digital scavenger hunt in which students explore the atlases in search of taxa that show particular morphological features. As the project leaders describe in a recent article in Paleontologica Electronica, “the goal of such an exercise is to familiarize students with the diversity and variation of morphological forms within and across taxonomic groups, leading them to realize that this variation is useful for understanding phylogenetic relationships. First, students will be presented with illustrations and descriptions of morphological features, for example, different types of bivalve hinge dentition. Then, students will be directed to search the digital atlases for examples of species (or higher taxa) that show a particular feature, for example, a bivalve with a heterodont hinge. . . Once students are familiar with the diversity of morphological forms (i.e., characters and character states) within taxonomic groups–as well as the corresponding terminology–they will be presented with a list of taxa to research. Based on the distribution of character states shared among those taxa, they will be asked to construct a simple phylogenetic hypothesis in which character states are mapped at the appropriate nodes on the tree.”

The plan is to create individual atlas webpages for over 850 ancient animal species, including distributional maps for these species over multiple time intervals. About 20-25 species will be added per month, so you are encouraged to check back often! As pages for individual species are generated, they will be announced on the homepage at and via the Twitter account @PaleoDigAtlas.

To learn more:

Hendrick, 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. Paleontologica Electronica