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May 13, 2013

The Virginia Museum of Natural History is teaming-up with six other nationally renowned research and educational institutions to provide a state-of-the-art digital database of all the major fossil insect collections in the United States. The Fossil Insect Collaborative is a joint venture between the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), the American Museum of Natural History, the Yale Peabody Museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, the University of Colorado, the University of Illinois, and the University of Kansas. The $2.3 million project is funded through a series of grants awarded to the institutions by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"Fossil insects have been hidden treasures in our museums for a very long time,” said Dr. Dena Smith of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the lead investigator for the project. “By studying them, we can learn so much about life on Earth and the effects of environmental change. This collaboration among some of the top museums in the country will finally make these important specimens available to educators, policy-makers and researchers in different disciplines all over the world."

The primary fossil insect collection from VMNH is of international interest, having been excavated from the Solite Quarry near Cascade Virginia. The rock layers support fossil insects from the Triassic period over 200 million years ago. This time period followed the Great Permian Extinction, when many forms of life on earth disappeared. The Solite fossils represent a critical record in earth’s history, and document the blossoming of insects following a massive extinction event.

Fossil insects provide a unique deep-time record of ecological and evolutionary response to past environmental changes and therefore are invaluable for understanding the impacts of climate change on the modern animal population. Given current models of future climate change and the important role that insects play in human society - such as nature's diversity, pests, pollinators, and vectors of disease - the ability to access these data and make predictions about future insect populations becomes even more urgent.

"The goal of the project is to produce a photographic database of fossil insect collections that will serve as an information clearinghouse for researchers studying the evolution of insects or using them as paleoenvironmental indicators," said Dr. Alton Dooley, curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and principal investigator for the VMNH portion of the project.

The digitized fossil insect collections will be made broadly accessible to the research and educational communities, governmental agencies, industries, as well as the general public and media through the project Web site, iDigPaleo.org.

Additionally, mobile apps and activities that allow a wide variety of users to experience and interact directly with the collections data will be developed.

The award is made as part of the NSF's National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program and all data resulting from this award will be available through the national resource, iDigBio.org.

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