17.03.2021

Challenger Nussaïbah Raja Schoob on the importance of cleaning fossil data

As a paleobiologist, most of my work spends cleaning the underlying data of the analyses that I plan to make. As we progress in the field of paleontology and paleobiology, our knowledge about the fossil specimens that we are studying grows and as a result, the names of the taxa change and we get closer to pinpointing the times during which they live.

For example, at one point in time, most of the modern world’s grasses were placed in one single genus, Poa. But as more and more grasses came to be known, it became very clear that there was no way that all of the world’s c. 9000 types of grass would fall under one category only. The same happens with fossilised animals and plants as our understanding of how the world worked millions of years ago worked.

These changes that happen over time are documented in the published literature but it is impossible for scientists to keep up with all those changes and updating biodiversity databases manually is an impossible task. The research challenge that we set is a step forward into solving this problem by automatising the now-defunct taxonomic and temporal assignments of the fossil data that we as palaeobiologists handle.

Why is this necessary? These data provide us with the possibility of understanding the components of biodiversity during times when humans did not yet exist. Learning from this data can help us understand how at different times, animals and plants reacted to changes in their environments. Some survived while some went extinct. This can then provide us with possible scenarios of the future of the global biodiversity in the midst of this ongoing climate change.

Therefore, submit your solution on how to automatise this workflow - now!