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Planet Earth

Like Fossils? Like Maps? You're Welcome

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I love fossils. I love maps. A map of fossils? Sweet! An open-access, interactive world map of every fossil ever found? ShutTheFrontDoorYouGottaBeKiddingMe! I know what I'm doing this weekend. Why not join me? While it's been around a while in one form or another since the late '90s, the Paleobiology Database hasn't had a high profile in the public. That's a shame, because it is a gorgeous, user-friendly collection of documented fossils from around the world, and you can check it out right now on your desktop (or download one of the apps to use it more narrowly on your portable device). Why should you check it out? Because science. Wonderful, engaging, thought-provoking science, people. Check out what's been found in your hometown or state, wander through one area — say, the American West — over the course of the last several hundred million years, or pinpoint the location of a fossil you read about recently. It's all a few clicks away. For example, I'm heading on vacation in late May to a country famous for its hominin fossils. Curious about other potential finds, I just pulled it up on the PBDB and discovered they've found loads of molluscs, bryozoans and other marine animals from the Mesozoic, too, mostly at sites a few thousand feet above current sea level. That's made me want to do a lot more reading about my destination, and to be more aware of the visible rock strata when I'm hiking. The PBDB is intended for use by researchers, so you'll find Linnaean taxonomy rather than common names, for example, but it's so intuitive that anyone in double digits (and probably many younger than that) can open the Navigator and zero in on any combination of location, time and taxon, right down to the species.

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One big caveat: knowing where fossils have been found is never a reason to power up your GPS, throw a shovel in your car trunk and drive off planning to do some impromptu digging. Because people who pull those kinds of stunts hate knowledge. And hey, if you are hiking around or walking the dog or whatever and see a fossil sticking out of an eroding stream bed or something, leave it where it is. Snap a photo with your phone and get in touch with the nearest paleontology department/park service/university extension. That might not be as fun as digging it out, hauling it home and displaying it in your living room, but many of the most significant fossil finds started with someone noticing something sticking out of somewhere and having the good sense to call in the pros to excavate it properly. Okay, that's my friendly reminder to be a responsible citizen of the world. Now fire up the Paleobiology Database and travel the Road of Life across time and space!

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