IU scientist part of international team launching fossil database

Open-access resource will help determine evolution's timescale

  • Feb. 24, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A groundbreaking resource for scientists launched today to provide the best available data about when groups of plants or animals first evolved -- important information for research on topics such as human origins, genomes and the evolution of HIV strains.

The Fossil Calibration Database, a free, open-access resource that stores carefully vetted fossil data, is the result of years of work from a worldwide team that includes paleontologist David Polly, professor of geological sciences in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences.

The project was led by Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., and former postdoctoral fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center -- known as NESCent -- and James Parham, curator at the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center in Orange County, Calif. The NESCent Center in Durham, N.C., funded the project.

“Fossils provide the critical age data we need to unlock the timing of major evolutionary events,” Ksepka said. “This new resource will provide the crucial fossil data needed to calibrate ‘molecular clocks’ that can reveal the ages of plant and animal groups that lack good fossil records. Precisely tuning the molecular clock with fossils is the best way we have to tell evolutionary time.”

IU paleontologist Polly is executive editor and co-founder of the online journal Palaeontologia Electronica, which will serve as host for the Fossil Calibration Database and accompanying materials. He also programmed the prototype for the database.

He noted that many evolutionary genetics studies have relied on fossil calibration data that are weak, outdated or just plain wrong. In response, the Fossil Calibration Working Group brought together paleontologists, molecular biologists and informaticians to develop best practices and to assemble quality, up-to-date, peer-reviewed calibration points that are easily accessible to the scientific community.

“The database is accompanied by a peer-reviewed scientific series in which paleontologists will assemble the data necessary to calibrate the age of key nodes in the tree of life,” Polly said. “The information will be presented in compact form for non-experts, allowing people to evaluate the calibrations and compare them to alternative hypotheses even without paleontological training.”

Polly is also co-author, with Ksepka and Parham, of an editorial that explains the fossil calibration project and database. It appears today in Palaeontologia Electronica, along with a series of five peer-reviewed papers that are part of the project.

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