Summer Spreadsheets

Since it is what consumes me right now, I’d like briefly to share a little bit of what I’m getting up to this summer. I may not be spending the time island-hopping in Greece or lounging in the Spanish sun, but I am lucky enough to be doing my work in the wonderful surroundings of London’s Natural History Museum. It’s only natural then to think I’m getting the chance to work on some rare dinosaur bone or groundbreaking ancient DNA analysis. Nope, instead I’m spreadsheeting my way to September*. Far away from the public galleries in the basement of the NHM’s Department of Earth Sciences sits the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology. This index is the result of the lifetime’s work of Dr. John Williams who, for almost 40 years, worked for BP (British Petroleum). During this time Dr. Williams was able to assemble a personal palaeopalynology (ancient pollen and spores) literature collection. Over the years this collection has developed into a fully cross-referenced card index and associated library of publications and today it contains over 25,000 references.

One of the JWIP’s many drawers of index cards

The JWIP (because it’s full title is a bit of a tongue twister!) unfortunately isn’t much to look at, but what it lacks in beauty if makes up for in comprehensiveness.  The database is made up of those little index cards every student is familiar with, all of which are handwritten and stored alphabetically in countless filing cabinets. The data have come directly from published literature, including reports and theses, that Dr. Williams personally examined up until the end of last year. It contains over 250,000 index cards, with sections displaying data on fossil occurrences, stratigraphy, and taxonomy. The cross-referenced nature of the database means you can search for anything by starting with anything from publication author to geographical location. For someone like me with an tendency to organise obsessively, this project was a perfect fit.

Searching for the right cards...
Searching for cards on the genus Aquilapollenites

Aside from its unfortunate looks, the JWIP is unfortunate in a much graver sense. Its not digital. Digital databases are much more familiar to many of us, the Paleobiology Database being one example. No matter where you are in the world, if you have a computer and an internet connection you already have a vast amount of data at your fingertips. Index card databases such as the JWIP were once a common sight in laboratories and doctor’s surgeries during the 19th century and for the time were considered the height of sophistication. But the digital era soon crept in and made many of these index card set-ups obsolete. Nowadays, digitisation is a hot-topic in museums, libraries, and archives across the world. Museums like the NHM are swiftly choosing the most appropriate specimens to put in line to have their photograph taken and their details noted down. The ultimate goal of this process being to ensure longevity of the data associated with the collections, and also to allow the data to become more accessible, portable, and up-to-date. As it stands right now, the JWIP is available to any researcher seeking fossil pollen occurrence data – provided they travel to the NHM basement and sieve through the cards by hand, whilst recording the information they need.

Aquilapollenites attenuatus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Aquilapollenites attenuatus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my project comes in. Over the summer I’ll be digitising, databasing, and analysing the part of the JWIP that belongs to Aquilapollenites, an extinct genus of fossil pollen. Species in the genus were at peak in the Late Cretaceous, along with the dinosaurs, some even surviving the extinction event that many dinosaurs didn’t. If that wasn’t cool enough, some Aquilapollenites species such as A. mtchedlishvilii are important index fossils that mark the boundary between time periods in rock formations of North America. I know, far too much awesomeness right there. When I finished placing all of the handwritten information from the 600 or so cards directly into spreadsheets, I had filled in over 24,500 cells. That’s a lot of data. As of this week I have a full two months left to work on my project and well on my way to getting some exciting results! Using the digital database I’ve created I’ll be able to use statistical and GIS software to assess the diversity patterns and historical distribution of the species within Aquilapollenites. Such a study has not been preformed before on this genus, and has only been made possible by the exhaustive nature of the JWIP. Despite the JWIP being a completely non-digital database it is an invaluable source of fossil occurrence data, possibly the most comprehensive of its kind available today. It is hoped that my project will kick start the essential process of modernising the JWIP, highlight its importance in paleobiogeographical studies,  and guarantee that it is around for more exciting projects in the future. I’ll report back soon with what interesting patterns the data throw up. I’d like to think that if the JWIP was already digital I may be able to sit in that Spanish sun and do my analyses from there. But for now all that is in front of me is a fun summer full of spreadsheets!   * I actually do work on some “conventional” specimens too. Check back here later in the month to read about the Miocene mammals I’m curating!