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EarthCube’s PBOT Enables Scientists and Educators Access to Paleobotany Data

Sycamore fossil leaf.jpg

EarthCube’s new PBOT project includes entry and analysis of fossil plant data from the Cretaceous through Eocene (~145 to 34 million years ago), a time interval that includes globally warm time periods, the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs, and the rise of mammals and modern forests. Shown here is a 50-million-year-old sycamore leaf from northwestern Wyoming.

Credit: E. Currano, University of Wyoming

About EarthCube

EarthCube is a community-driven activity sponsored by the National Science Foundation to transform research in the academic geosciences community. EarthCube aims to create a well-connected environment to share data and knowledge in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner, thus accelerating our ability to better understand and predict the Earth’s systems. EarthCube membership is free and open to anyone in the Geosciences, as well as those building platforms to serve the Earth Sciences. The EarthCube Office is led by the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) on the UC San Diego campus. 


Media Contact: 

Kimberly Mann Bruch, San Diego Supercomputer Center Communications,


Membership Contact:

Lynne Schreiber, San Diego Supercomputer Center EarthCube Office,


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January 15, 2021


By: Kimberly Mann Bruch

Detailed information about ancient vegetation has long been a mystery, and often when it is discovered, accessing the data is difficult - if even possible. However, a new EarthCube project team has recently begun development of a unique web client and database coined PBOT, short for Paleobotany Database, that aims to provide both scientists and educators easy access to a long awaited paleobotany database.

Led by Principal Investigator Ellen Currano, an associate professor of botany and geology and geophysics  at the University of Wyoming, PBOT has been designed to change future research methods for paleobotanists as well as ways in which educators access and share data about ancient fossils.

“Millions of fossil plant specimens are found in museums worldwide, but the vast majority of these have not or cannot be assigned formal genus and species names; therefore, they exist as ‘dark data’ - largely inaccessible to scientists, educators, and the general public,” said Currano. “The PBOT infrastructure and platform allows paleobotanical data to be meaningfully shared and used by a broad range of users - allowing for a myriad of scientific and societal uses, and charting a sustainable, long-term digital future for paleobotanical data management and research.”

Not only has PBOT been designed to provide scientists with much needed information for their research, but the myriad of fossil plant data will be available to the public and educators at all levels for use in hands-on educational activities as well as citizen science initiatives. Additionally, an online workbench has been designed to provide a standardized resource for fossil plant description and data entry that can be used by students, professionals, and fossil enthusiasts.
So, why have fossil plants been severely underrepresented in current databases such as the famed Paleobiology Database? Currano explained that one major reason for this is that plant fossils are often very difficult to identify using traditional Linnaean classification (genus-species names).

“Paleobotanists commonly use morphologically-based, informal taxonomies - known as morphotypes,” said Currano. “These informal taxonomies cannot be input into existing databases, and there is no system in place that allows morphotypes to be compared among different lab groups, regions, and time periods.”

Currano and her team have been hard at work to align their efforts to compliment those being conducted by the Paleobiology Database team. Andrew Zaffos, a senior research scientist with the Arizona Geological Survey and University of Arizona, has been studying marine deposition patterns and erosion controlled fossil biodiversity for many years. He has also been involved with Currano on implementing PBOT and has been leading the programming efforts. “When Ellen reached out to me for geoinformatics guidance, I was really excited to learn more about how PBOT can not only help researchers like me conduct our research, but also get the word out to educators about paleobotany,” said Zaffos. “Until we have PBOT up and running, we are actively seeking insight from our user community on our beta version.”

Funding for PBOT was provided by the National Science Foundation (2026961).


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