Museum Collections: Junk Drawers or Mirrors of Fossil Diversity?

David Cordie, Edgewood College

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Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2022


Are museum collections a perfect reflection of diversity in the past, or are they a junk drawer full of odds and ends that just happen to be collected? The fossil record is the best tool we have for studying diversity in deep time. However, it is not a perfect reflection of all organisms present in the past. Museum collections further complicate this by conserving an imperfect assortment of specimens. The goal of this assignment is to identify biases in the fossil record and of museum collections as they relate to recording biodiversity through time. The goal is also to contrast different comparative methods in paleontology. This module attempts to combine learning about the fossil record with learning about human biases that affect our ability to interpret the past. It uses a combination of active learning, analysis, discussion, and reflection.

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Learning Goals

  • Explore human and natural influences on fossil collections to identify biases in the fossil record
  • Evaluate different comparative methods to describe appropriate situations for their usage
  • Use a large database to illustrate change in biodiversity through time

Context for Use

This module is appropriate for undergraduates in an intermediate/upper level paleontology or biology course who have already had an introductory level course in these areas. It can be done by individual students followed by a larger group discussion. The module can be done in one 3-hour lab session, or over several 50-minute lecture meetings (not including ending discussion). Part C and follow-up activities can be done as homework, if time is limited. All students should have access to an internet-connected device and access to any statistical software (Excel, Google Sheets, Past). An Excel spreadsheet is provided for this module, but it can be copied and pasted into Google Sheets with no change needed in the directions for the student handout. Students should be comfortable writing equations in Excel or the instructor should plan time to explain this aspect of database management.

Ideally students will have a basic understanding of taxonomic ranks, fossil preservation, and biodiversity before starting this module. No specific knowledge of any taxonomic group is required though. As written, this module is envisioned as occurring in the later portions of a course as an example of what scientists do with research collections. It is ideal for a paleontology class that has already learned about the different groups of organisms, but need an example of what we do with that knowledge. The assignment uses a combination of activities, discussion, and assignments.

How Instructors Have Used This Module

Using Project EDDIE modules in From Stones to Bones
David Cordie, Edgewood College
A lot of undergraduate paleontology classes get bogged down with teaching the anatomy of dozens of organisms found in the fossil record. Just focusing on these aspects of paleontology make for a repetitive course that ends up just being about memorization. Instead, this activity focuses on what scientists actually do with the fossils they collected and the state our knowledge base. For example, after the activity, the students were surprised how some museums had very few corals and sponges compared to turtles.

Description and Teaching Materials

Quick overview of the activities in this module

  • Activity A: Determine if a modern ecosystem and ancient ecosystem have the same biodiversity using biodiversity metrics and hypothesis testing.
  • Activity B: Subset data to eliminate variation in fossil depositional environments and repeat the above analysis.
  • Activity C: Compare data records of the Paleobiological Database to museum collection database.
  • Activity D (optional): Discuss biases in the fossil record.
  • Homework (optional): Write up a research method comparing different comparative methods.

Workflow of this module:

  1. Assign pre-class reading about the value of museum collections (20 minutes at home)
  2. Give the introductory lecture on fossil preservation and statistics (as needed, 20 minutes)
  3. Give students the assignment handout and data set and have them start working on data analysis
  4. Pause for a check of understanding of the data and tests being used after Activity A
  5. Assign the remainder of assignment (2-3 hours)
  6. End with a discussion on biases in the fossil record due to natural and human influences (20 minutes)
  7. Assign reflection/report as homework

Teaching Materials

Pre-class readings


  •  Introductory PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 427kB Jul7 22) (please adapt as needed based on students' prior knowledge)
  • Student handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 46kB Jul12 22) 
  • Dataset (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 236kB Jul5 22)

Teaching Notes and Tips

While the main goal of this assignment is to learn about data analysis and filters in the fossil record, another goal of this assignment is to highlight the importance of museum collections. After completing the module, students might incorrectly extrapolate the findings to suggest that museum collections are not important tools for studying the past. This is not the intention of the module, and it is why having a discussion about museums is important to reframe the limitations that might have been observed during the module as an outcome of researchers' own biases to studying only a select group of organisms.


After Activity B, students should be able to articulate that differential preservation of organisms in different environments is a major limitation of the fossil record. Proof of learning outcome 1 can come in the form of written questions in the handout. The discussion at the end of all activities can also serve as a qualitative assessment of this outcome. Learning outcome 2 can be assessed based on answers to a reflection in which students articulate which method of comparison is easiest. While no method is perfect, a student should be able to explain why one is better than the other, in their opinion. Learning outcome 3 can be assessed based on students' ability to generate answers to questions in the handout.

References and Resources

Suggested Pre-class Readings

Additional Lesson Resources for Instructors

Related Activities

Quantitative Literacy Resources

Data Provider Citations