Benedictine University Professor: Prehistoric life is a database just waiting to be downloaded

May 19, 2016

For years, scientists have made conclusions about the behavior of ancient life on Earth using a hodgepodge of clues from fossils, geologic patterns and theory.

But an increasing number of them are applying more advanced data collection, coding and software to substantiate well-known claims about the evolution of different plants and animals.

In two recently published articles in the May issue of Paleobiology, Phil Novack-Gottshall, Ph.D., associate professor of Biological Sciences at Benedictine University, proposes new methods for verifying the habits of ancient life. While on sabbatical last fall, he created an open-source software package called ecospace, which utilizes a database of fossil records to provide a more statistically-sound picture of how prehistoric organisms lived.

“The core objective was to build this large database on how these organisms behaved, how they ate, where they moved and where they lived,” Novack-Gottshall said. “A lot of people have done it in qualitative ways, which is good. I don’t think they are wrong, but if you are only dealing in subjective measures, it’s hard to know if what you are measuring is real or just perceptual."

Currently, the database numbers about 3,000 different kinds of fossils dating back to when animals first emerged (about 500 million years ago).

Many paleobiologists focus on how life became significant on Earth during the Paleozoic Era. Others are concerned with the Cenozoic Era because of the availability and quality of the fossils and their relationship to living organisms today, which makes it easier to confirm their ecology, Novack-Gottshall said.

“People haven’t really confirmed these things until recently because in the past, these answers were settled by the elders of the field who said this is what the patterns were,” he added. “No one really questioned it, but now it is time to go back and make sure what they are saying is true.”

But much research and data is missing from a key middle period, the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs thrived 65 to 250 million years ago.

“As far as I know, no one has the data for this period of time in this kind of a database,” Novack-Gottshall said. “There are a few who have some data, but they are not looking at the full breadth of what’s out there. There is a race going on scientifically to try and get this data, and I am trying to get there first.”

Among some of the claims that Novack-Gottshall could better answer with the data is why more predators lived in a certain time period or how rapidly organisms evolved in body size over time, he said.

“Hopefully by the end of the year, I will have completed enough of the database that I can answer these questions, at least in the first broad brush stroke,” Novack-Gottshall said. “My guess is we will have many years of fun with this data, but it’s the big questions that I’m hoping we will be able to make the first quantitative answer on.”

Novack-Gottshall involves undergraduate students at Benedictine University in his research and will include them on this new project.

He also teaches a Paleobiology course in the spring which features a fossil hunting trip to the Thornton Quarry, in Thornton, Ill. It is one of the largest quarries in the world and a relic of an ancient limestone reef that spanned the Chicago area and Great Lakes approximately 300 million years ago.

“It is really one of the best places in the Midwest to do fossil collecting and it’s right in our backyard,” Novack-Gottshall said.

Consistent with Benedictine’s core philosophy of coupling hands-on practical experiences with classroom learning, students in Novack-Gottshall's class first learn how to do their own analysis of different fossils, such as where they were found, their size, feeding habits, and how paleobiologists use computers and online databases to study the history of life.

On the quarry trip, they learn how to collect data in the field – a task not many undergraduate students get the chance to learn.

“There’s a lot behind the scenes students miss when they look at fossils in the classroom,” Novack-Gottshall said. “You really have to be out in the field getting dirty, getting dusty, doing that fun, hard work to appreciate that every fossil came from somewhere.”

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.

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