Fostering online collaboration between professional and amateur paleontologists through myFOSSIL

Samantha Ocon

Authors:  Samantha B. Ocon, Sadie M. Mills, Jennifer E. Bauer, Dr. Bruce MacFadden

Faculty Mentor: Sadie M. Mills

College: Florida Museum of Natural History

Abstract

Fossils are relics of natural history that attract people across a wide variety of paleontological backgrounds, from professional to amateur. Despite this common interest, however, there is often an insurmountable boundary between these two groups. Amateur paleontologists are often avid fossil collectors that can offer unique insight into their favorite collecting sites and taxonomic specialties. These amateur fossil collections, however, are not always accessible to professionals, who may gain scientific insight from these private collections.
myFOSSIL, an NSF-funded initiative (NSF-DRL 1322725) based out of the Florida Museum of Natural History, sought to lessen the boundary between paleontologists of all backgrounds by creating an online community. Through a mobile app and a website (myfossil.org), users interact in forums, post photos of paleontological activities, and upload specimen images to the myFOSSIL eMuseum. This eMuseum is a digital fossil collection that allows users to photograph their personal specimens and virtually contribute them to a publicly accessible collection. Other myFOSSIL users are then able to comment on uploaded specimens, fostering collaboration between paleontologists of all backgrounds. This is beneficial because it unobtrusively opens personal collections to professional paleontological researchers, while teaching amateur users the process of curating and identifying fossils in their collection.

Poster Pitch

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Poster

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Joe Meert
Joe Meert (@guest_1512)
1 year ago

Hi Sam,

Congratulations on your project and your exciting future. I was curious if the project has received some new fossils that were (a) obviously biological and (b) rare or new discoveries.

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_3416)
Reply to  Joe Meert
1 year ago

Good afternoon, Dr. Meert,

We do occasionally get some rocks in the mix, but we’ve had mostly fossils uploaded. One of our users has currently been uploading from one of his sites in Mississippi that hasn’t yet been published on yet! We suspect it may be a littoral site from the Late Cretaceous.

One of our other users has been uploading his finds of insects from the Green River fm. Although these aren’t new scientific discoveries, I get really excited about them as I love arthropods.

Sam

Dave Blackburn
Dave Blackburn (@guest_1690)
1 year ago

Very nice poster! I too was interested in whether these fossils contributed new knowledge about distributions of organisms in the past or other types of new biological data.

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_3808)
Reply to  Dave Blackburn
1 year ago

Hi Dr. Blackburn,

We are currently working to upload our research grade specimen data to iDigBio, so hopefully we will be able to contribute more data to large macroevolutionary studies. On top of that, some of our users have been uploading specimens from their favorite fossil hunting sites, some of which haven’t had a formal paleoecological analysis published yet. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of them, as some of our users have been interested in learning about the academic publishing process.

Sam

Jimmy Peniston
Jimmy Peniston (@guest_1866)
1 year ago

Hi Samatha,

This is an amazing poster and a great project! I really learned a lot. I noticed that the poster says there are 66 3D specimens. I was wondering how uploading 3D specimens works. Do users take photos from different angles?

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_4080)
Reply to  Jimmy Peniston
1 year ago

Hi Jimmy!

Anyone with an .STL file can upload a 3D specimen – however, we currently don’t have any tools within the site to turn photos into a 3D scan. Now that I think of it, maybe creating a tutorial on photogrammetry (using 2D photos from multiple angles to create a 3D model) would make the process more accessible for our users.

Thank you for the idea!
Sam

Jimmy Peniston
Jimmy Peniston (@guest_5328)
Reply to  Samantha Ocon
1 year ago

Wow. A photogrammetry tutorial sounds super cool! Thanks for the reply.

Courtney Sprain
Courtney Sprain (@guest_1922)
1 year ago

Hi Samantha,

Very cool project and very nice presentation! I was wondering if you could say a little more about your role in the project and what part you’ve been helping the most with.

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_4500)
Reply to  Courtney Sprain
1 year ago

Hi Dr. Sprain!

I began as a social media intern, where I assisted with creating educational + engaging content for the myFOSSIL social media platforms. I came into this position with a strong paleontological background, as I have always intended to pursue a career as a paleontologist, and thus had begun research before I even began my undergraduate schooling. As time passed, I was given the opportunity to assist with workshops and eventually took the reigns as the eMuseum curator. In this position, I am responsible for working with users to properly identify, date, and otherwise curate metadata around the fossils. In addition, I oversee other volunteer curators. As time allows, I still work on our social media feeds and try to work with users to create articles and blog posts on their paleontological experiences.

Thanks,
Sam

Grace Taylor
Grace Taylor (@guest_2108)
1 year ago

Hi Sam!

Really interesting poster, I’ve never thought of a collaborate fossil-sharing website. Based off the numbers, would you say this is becoming a pretty popular tool in the community, or is it still in the initial phases?

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_4870)
Reply to  Grace Taylor
1 year ago

Hi Grace!

We are still getting new users every day, so I would speculate that we are performing pretty well! Currently, we are trying to continue updating our app and our website, so there is no telling how things may change, but hopefully we will become even more popular.

Thanks,
Sam

Grace Taylor
Grace Taylor (@guest_5636)
Reply to  Samantha Ocon
1 year ago

Very cool and best of luck!

Sara Zlotnik
Sara Zlotnik (@guest_2234)
1 year ago

Wow, this is a great poster and a super interesting initiative! Thanks so much for sharing your work on myFOSSIL with everyone!

I was curious if you have used it yourself with fossils you have found or if you have personally talked to any amateur paleontologists who have used myFOSSIL to ask about their experience using the app. I imagine it would be interesting to hear from people who have been collecting fossils for a long time and have only recently had the technological means of sharing their findings with the larger scientific community.

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_5086)
Reply to  Sara Zlotnik
1 year ago

Hi Sara!

I have used it myself – I’ve uploaded some small echinoids from our local Ocala Limestone. In addition to that, I’ve made quite a few connections with users on the website, and developed a camaraderie with other users over our shared love of fossils. I’m mostly an invertebrate person, so I learn a lot from people who love their vertebrates!

Thanks,
Sam

Emily
Emily (@guest_2528)
1 year ago

Very awesome job! Congratulations

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_5164)
Reply to  Emily
1 year ago

Thank you, Emily!

Amy Williams
Amy Williams (@guest_3794)
1 year ago

This is a fantastic poster and video, Sam! What a powerful concept, to link the amateur paleontology community with the museum. Do you ever get any duds, where someone thought it was a fossil but it ended up being a false positive?

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_5400)
Reply to  Amy Williams
1 year ago

Thank you so much, Dr. Williams!

We definitely do get rocks and pseudofossils in the eMuseum, but our curators work with the uploaders to remove those specimens whilst also describing how we could tell that it wasn’t a fossil. We also have an active group called “What Is It?”, where users can post photos of suspect rocks/fossils outside of the eMuseum and have other users comment about possible identifications.

Sam

Sadie Mills
Sadie Mills (@guest_4110)
1 year ago

Hi Sam,

From a student’s perspectives, what skills have you learned while serving as curator of the eMuseum that you think will help you on your way to greatness in your paleontology career?

Great work!

-Sadie

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_5594)
Reply to  Sadie Mills
1 year ago

Hi Sadie!

I’ve learned a lot from this position, but most importantly, I’ve learned a lot about working with people. Being an eMuseum curator has taught me how to explain sometimes difficult-to-grasp concepts to people without a scientific background. myFOSSIL has also been very rewarding in that it taught me about the process of curation and gave me more confidence in myself as a scientist and as a leader.

Sam

Bruce MacFadden
Bruce MacFadden (@guest_4224)
1 year ago

Hi Sam–I just looked over your poster and listened to the video. It was a good job and very informative. I do not know however how to get a video chat with you about this. Can we set something up for later?

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_5904)
Reply to  Bruce MacFadden
1 year ago

Hi Dr. MacFadden,

I am not hosting a live video feed for this poster presentation but I’d be happy to email you with times we could Zoom next week.

Thank you,
Sam

Hana Cicevic
Hana Cicevic (@guest_4364)
1 year ago

Hi Sam! The poster looks amazing! This seems like a really interesting app. Do you think more features will be added to it in the future, and what do you think they might be?

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_6104)
Reply to  Hana Cicevic
1 year ago

Hi Hana!

Currently, we’re trying to update the app so it is more user friendly! We have a lot more features planned, but one of the more recent updates included tagging, photo zooming, and the ability to create groups in the app.
In terms of the website, we hope to eventually port our data to iDigBio so researchers will be able to use our data alongside the data of other museums to perform large scale macroevolutionary studies.

Thanks,
Sam

Sydney Shaner
Sydney Shaner (@guest_5934)
1 year ago

Hi Sam! Awesome poster and presentation. I really appreciate this work to bridge the gap between paleontologists of all backgrounds, making science more streamlined and accessible!

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_6114)
Reply to  Sydney Shaner
1 year ago

Thank you so much, Sydney!

David Malcolm
David Malcolm (@guest_7384)
1 year ago

Excellent presentation, Sam! This sounds like a really great platform for citizen science to level the playing field in research and allow people with a passion for science and a day job to contribute to progress in understanding our natural history! I use a similar platform called iNaturalist to share my sightings of wild plants, animals, and fungi with other natural scientists. What do you think could be the future of this platform as access to technology improves for the average end-user? Do you think we could see amateur paleontologists uploading 3D scans of their collections to a database?

David Malcolm
David Malcolm (@guest_7392)
1 year ago

Excellent presentation, Sam! This sounds like a really great platform for citizen science to level the playing field in research and allow people with a passion for science and a day job to contribute to progress in understanding our natural history! I use a similar platform called iNaturalist to share my sightings of wild plants, animals, and fungi with other natural scientists. What do you think could be the future of this platform as access to technology improves for the average end-user? Do you think we could see amateur paleontologists uploading 3D scans of their collections to a database?

Anonymous
Anonymous (@guest_7598)
Reply to  David Malcolm
1 year ago

Hi David! Thank you for your kind comments! One of the earlier commenters gave me the idea to create a tutorial for photogrammetry, which is a 3D modeling method one can do at home.

Thanks, Sam

CAROLINA ORTIZ GUERRERO
CAROLINA ORTIZ GUERRERO (@guest_7464)
1 year ago

Great Job Sam! I am a fan of the passion and effort you put into this project. What is the future of the project? Is this going to be constantly updated in the future? Is this a permanent project of the museum?

Samantha Ocon
Samantha Ocon (@guest_7602)
Reply to  CAROLINA ORTIZ GUERRERO
1 year ago

Hi Carolina! We plan on expanding the website and app over time, but our NSF funding has run out.

Thanks, Sam