by Lee Cone, President of the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum
I have invested a considerable amount of energy in writing about the FOSSIL Project, since my introduction to it at NAPC 2014. My energy has been directed toward the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum (AFM) group in an effort to introduce its members to the program. I invited Bruce MacFadden, one of the contributing architects of the program, to speak in 2014 and we secured two doctoral students, Catalina Pimiento and Victor Perez, for 2015. Several members of the AFM Board of Directors heard Dr. MacFadden speak in 2014 and realized then how important the FOSSIL Project is for the field of paleontology and for the Aurora Fossil Museum. The more involved that I have become with the project, the more important and far-reaching I believe it is. Both the Friends of the AFM and the Museum itself have received national attention because of our support and involvement with FOSSIL. The National Science Foundation has invested almost 2 million dollars in FOSSIL and another 7.5 million in a UF technology effort called iDigBio, which seeks to digitize biodiversity collections nationwide. The FOSSIL Project is bringing together amateur collectors and professional paleontologists via the myFOSSIL website for coordinated contributions in line with iDigBio’s goals. The amateur has the opportunity to contribute on equal par with professionals, providing useful data in iDigBio for research worldwide. In order to achieve this (so that data entered by the amateur is actually useful), there is a growing need for the professional community to educate the amateur fossil collecting public. This can be accomplished through the network of clubs and societies around the country and through outreach to teachers and educators. Much like genealogy, a single path branches into incredible numbers of connections as the generations branch out over time.
We have come to a juncture in the road of amateur collecting, and we must face the bare truth. Collecting is becoming less and less of a freedom, and legal maneuvering at the state and federal levels seeks to reduce collecting significantly. As you are aware, my support for the myFOSSIL program is overwhelmingly positive and let me be the first to say that the FOSSIL Project is NOT, nor should it ever be, a political advocacy group one way or another. We, though, as members of the amateur community, have a major part to play and we have the potential to preserve our collecting freedom by learning and adhering to the principles set forth by FOSSIL and the professional side of paleontology. I have truly come to believe that the FOSSIL Project has the potential to impact paleontology to levels never imagined, and prove itself to be one of the most productive programs and dynamic resources ever created in paleontology. If the amateur community embraces the myFOSSIL program, and demonstrates their ability to confide in, contribute to, and forge relationships with the professional side of paleontology, then the amateurs’ value will be recognized to levels beyond their museum contributions or financial donations. Amateur contributions are widely accepted in so far as tangible assets, but are not well known through database research contributions. That is where organizations, such as the Friends of the AFM, must educate club members. Most amateur collectors are not aware of protocol and ethics in paleontology. We must teach this to our members, and it must be part of all club and society charters and membership rules in order to develop the character of our membership into a force which is valued by and necessary to the professional. If the entire professional community finds that amateur contributions to paleontology are outstanding and of research quality, maybe the efforts to thwart amateur collecting will disappear. I feel as though the “ball is in our court.” Bruce MacFadden and the FOSSIL Project team have given us the stage to show what we can really do. They have made it possible for us to become an asset, not a liability. They have provided a platform, and they have funded it and organized it for us. Now it is up to us to prove that we are in fact responsible enough to carry this torch and educate those within our organizations about professional-level care and protocol. If we do this correctly, we can work with museums, with universities, and with experts, providing enormous amounts of material for our shared use.
The willingness of FOSSIL to assist and work with the Friends of the AFM and other fossil enthusiast groups is well documented and their efforts in outreach to clubs and societies have been demonstrated through speakers at our educational lectures, through engaging activities at the Aurora Fossil Festival, through invitations to many of our members for the Calvert Marine Museum mini-conference in Solomons, MD (May 25-26, 2015), and most recently at the 3-D Digitization of Fossils Workshop in Gainesville, FL (June 15-17, 2015). What I have noticed at every event that I have participated in is a
genuine feeling of respect. Not once have I seen even a hint of professional snobbery or condescending elitism. In every case the professionals embraced the amateurs as equals, as friends, and above all with utmost respect. We were welcomed. This is not always the case in some professional/amateur relationships. The difference is that the FOSSIL team has one focus, which is to educate and reach out to amateurs who want to learn, want to listen, and want to be a part of this program. As amateurs, we need to hear what is being said and we need to understand why things are being said. We need to recognize that our support for this program gives validity to the amateur community and it provides the opportunity to demonstrate how much we can contribute as amateur and avocational paleontologists. If all collectors in all fossil clubs and societies entered their notable finds into the iDigBio database, the contributions from amateurs would be noteworthy and possibly even significant. It is vitally important that we, as club/society presidents, lead our clubs/societies in the direction of the FOSSIL Project. We need to develop outreach programs within our organizations to teach our members how to use the FOSSIL tools. We have the opportunity to add massive amounts of quality data to the research database, which would dramatically and instantly demonstrate the importance of the amateur collector to the professional paleontological community.
The FOSSIL Project and the iDigBio initiative hosted a fantastic conference in Gainesville, Florida, in June on 3-D imaging, education & outreach, and other fossil-related topics. Sixty educators from all over the United States made their way to the University of Florida to participate in this event. Some of the states that were represented included Oregon, California, Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Nebraska. It became another FOSSIL Project success, demonstrating that amateur paleontologists, professionals, and now educators can cooperate, work together, and build relationships and respect for each other. The speakers were both inspiring and forthright with valuable information on new and eye-catching technology. The event included 15 different lectures and interactive presentations, covering a vast array of topics, spanning from a technical introduction of 3-D imaging to discussion of in-depth paleontological data presented by professionals and doctoral candidates. One very noteworthy speaker was a high school student, Sage McGraw, who shared his heartfelt experiences and difficulties in the “standard educational process,” and the enormous positive impact that paleontology, digital learning, and one special teacher had on his life. Another impressive presentation was from a doctoral student, Catalina Pimiento, whose passion for understanding C. megalodon extinction was almost overshadowed by her passion for outreach with young students, who saw her as a mentor for what could be done through perseverance and educational desire. No matter what the topic, there was a common thread: how to incorporate the lecture material into teaching lesson plans. There was an effort to view these activities not simply in the science realm, but as crossing disciplinary lines into technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and beyond. The presentations from the 3-D conference are available here.
Another highlight of the workshop was a tour into the vertebrate and invertebrate collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH). UF/FLMNH holds an unprecedented number of vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, mostly from the southeastern US, and space to house such a collection has grown to be a limiting factor. Additionally, because of Bruce MacFadden’s research with horse evolution, we were treated to an amazing discussion in the collections room about the Thomas Farm site, Archaeohippus, and Parahippus, and we were able to examine the breadth of the Equus evolutionary collection. Other unique fossils were categorized neatly in metal sliding trays, stacked floor to ceiling, in huge rolling cabinets.
Overall, I have found the FOSSIL Project to be a meaningful and worthwhile endeavor that is really trying to build a broad-based paleontological community. I am proud to be a part of that community and I encourage amateurs who have not previously participated in a FOSSIL-organized event to do so. The more time and effort we invest in this program, the better it becomes. As I wrote earlier: the ball is in our court now!