Smithsonian Museum Is Going Digital, Aims To Bring To Light Millions Of Unseen Fossils ‘Hidden’ In Drawers

Gary YimShuttestock

The Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. has embarked on a grand adventure. According to the BBC, the institution is planning to digitize all of its 40 million fossils, in an attempt to make them more easily accessible to both scientists and members of the general public.

This mammoth enterprise is estimated to take a whopping 50 years to complete, but the end-result is well worth the wait. Five years into the project, the visitors of the emerging digital museum are already reaping the benefits of all the hard effort already put in by the Smithsonian team.

The project is run by Kathy Hollis of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, who chimed in on the important goal of this long-term mission.

“We are trying to make our entire collection available digitally for researchers to use online from anywhere in the world. We have over 40 million specimens in the collection — it records the entire history of life, so if it has a fossil representative, it’s likely here within the collection.”

As her team pointed out, this valuable work has the great advantage of bringing millions of unseen fossils into the light — specimens that otherwise would remain hidden in museum drawers, never to be seen by the public or studied by paleontologists.

A plesiosaur fossil belonging to the 'Dolichorhynchops' genus, exhibited in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
A plesiosaur fossil belonging to the 'Dolichorhynchops' genus, exhibited in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.Featured image credit: Ryan SommaWikimedia Commons/Resized

The Smithsonian is joined in this remarkable endeavor by the Natural History Museum in London, U.K., which brings to the table an even bigger fossil cache.

“We are embarking on an epic journey to digitize 80 million specimens from one of the world’s most important natural history collections,” the Natural History Museum announced on its website.

“Digitizing the museum’s collection will give the global scientific community access to unrivalled historical, geographic and taxonomic specimen data gathered in the last 250 years.”

'Temnodontosaurus' fossils on display at the Natural History Museum in London.
'Temnodontosaurus' fossils on display at the Natural History Museum in London.Featured image credit: Drow maleWikimedia Commons/Resized

How Digitization Can Help The Study Of Fossils

While museums such as the Smithsonian and the NHM house incredibly vast collections, only a fraction of these specimens are actually put on display. The rest of the fossils, described as “dark data,” are cataloged and stored away due to insufficient exhibition space.

In a recent study led by the University of California Museum of Paleontology, published in the journal Biology Letters, scientists argue that paleontology is experiencing a second digital revolution, which grants unprecedented access to the so-called “dark data” — unpublished and largely inaccessible fossil collections.

By committing these specimens to a large-scale digital museum, these little-known fossils are made available to researchers, who can use the digital images in ways that wouldn’t be possible if they handled the actual ancient — and fragile — remains.

A mosasaur fossil of the 'Tylosaurus proriger' species, discovered with a plesiosaur in its stomach, seen here on display at the Smithsonian.
A mosasaur fossil of the 'Tylosaurus proriger' species, discovered with a plesiosaur in its stomach, seen here on display at the Smithsonian.Featured image credit: Ryan SommaWikimedia Commons/Resized

Each specimen submitted to the digital museum is photographed in great detail. In addition, the high-quality images contain extensive metadata, which specify the fossil’s age, the species to which it belongs, and where the specimen was unearthed.

This facilitates the study of these fossils and enables researchers to manipulate the images in complex computer simulations that further reveal clues about the animals’ locomotion, diet, and social behavior.

“We can actually use the digital data to test how these animals functioned,” said Prof. Emily Rayfield of the University of Bristol, who uses CT scans of dinosaur bones to build computer models for research.