Paper No. 11-7
Presentation Time: 10:00 AM
FOSSILS FROM THE FRONTIER: DECADES OF MUSEUM INFLUENCE ON THE PALENTOLOGY OF THE FLORISSANT FOSSIL BEDS
International codes of nomenclature and the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act mandate that repositories of fossils from federal lands preserve and protect these specimens, both type and unpublished. Some museums have faltered over this long-term commitment, however, and specimens risk loss or neglect when researchers retire, museums transfer collections or collection locality ownership changes. The history of Florissant fossil beds, and of the museums that care for specimens collected there over 14 decades, mirrors that of many paleontological sites across the American West. Albert C. Peale of the Hayden Survey first reported the petrified wood and fossiliferous shale near Florissant, Colorado in 1873. Notable collectors and taxonomists followed in the effort to document these resources, beginning with the first Princeton Scientific Expedition and Samuel H. Scudder and continuing into the early 20th century and beyond with T.D.A. Cockerell, H.F. Wickham and others. Large museums across the East Coast and United Kingdom acquired significant collections from Florissant, through funding excavations or being associated with collectors. These few institutions grew to become the dominant repositories for material from distant frontiers and hence the only places where researchers could compare material to study systematics and biogeography. Scudder and Cockerell utilized fossil insects and plants from Florissant to develop early, specimen-based hypotheses on evolution and species range shifts. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was established in 1969, and the park maintains on-site collections and public exhibits of material excavated since then. With the cooperation of 17 museums, records of all published specimens from Florissant have been incorporated in a searchable database. The process of museum research no longer demands that a researcher visit a major institution to compare material; digitized databases, specimen loans and online publications now facilitate remote collaborations. Even as research techniques and curation practices change, and as the geographic and scientific frontier expands, the mandated role of museums in conserving original specimens remains crucial in providing material to further investigations of life and earth processes.