FossilPlot, an Excel-Based Computer Application for Teaching Stratigraphic Paleontology Using the Sepkoski Compendium of Fossil Marine Genera

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ABSTRACT

FossilPlot is a new Excel-based spreadsheet application of the Sepkoski Compendium designed for educational use in paleontology and historical geology courses. This free software allows students to compile any combination of marine animal genera to generate graphs depicting diversity curves and stratigraphic ranges for the Phanerozoic. Sample exercises are provided to show how this software can be integrated into lecture, lab and field studies in university-level paleontology courses. The large volume and full accessibility of the dataset gives instructors a versatile tool to enhance active learning of the dynamic history of life.

INTRODUCTION

In the current information age large geoscience datasets are becoming increasingly available, which has been a boon for creative activities in research and education (e.g., Digital Library for Earth System Education, The Paleobiology Database, The Paleontology Portal). These programs successfully illustrate the importance of making voluminous data both available and accessible for their varied audiences. For the purposes of education an effective archive should satisfy dual audiences - the instructor and the student - by providing qualities such as dataset versatility, the ease or implementation into the course curriculum, and the ease of use of the program by students, allowing them to focus their efforts on learning objectives.

Teaching the dynamic history of life is the core theme in university-level paleontology courses, where concepts in evolutionary theory are coupled with hands-on learning of fossil material both in the lab and in the field. Integrating a large faunal dataset within the course curriculum can facilitate these educational goals by encouraging students to explore the primary data used by professional paléontologiste to recognize patterns in organic evolution.

Among the faunal datasets available, the recently published monograph by Sepkoski (2002, hereafter referred to as the Sepkoski Compendium) is a stand-out, providing the stratigraphie ranges of more than 36,000 marine animal genera. This database forms the core of a new educational graphing application, which allows users to quickly and easily generate graphs that depict diversity curves and stratigraphie ranges for marine animals throughout the Phanerozoic. I nave designed this freeware program while teaching courses at the University of Utah (UU) and Idaho State University (ISU) in 2005-2006, and it is now publicly available for educational use.

In this paper I outline the main functions of FossilPlot and give examples of how it can be incorporated into university-level paleontology courses to give students instructive and user-friendly access to Sepkoski's landmark database.

CONTENTS OF FOSSILPLOT

FossilPlot was designed in MicrosoftExcel 2000 for PC, and it also is fully compatible with MSExcel for MAC. This free software comes with a detailed User's Manual and a PowerPoint slideshow primer, but only the basic capabilities of the program will be described here. Science educators may download the current version of the software (FossilPlot version 1.1) and its supporting files at the dedicated website, http://geology.isu. edu/FossilPlot.

The database - During the 1980s and 1990s paleontologist J. John Sepkoski, Jr., and his associates compiled comprehensive databases on the stratigraphie ranges of marine animals (Sepkoski 1982, 1992, 2002). This work allowed for the first time quantitative and statistical analyses of patterns in the evolutionary record (see introduction in Sepkoski, 2002, for references). Following his death in 1999, the Sepkoski Compendium of marine genera was published as a 560-page monograph (Sepkoski, 2002J, making this body of work publicly available. Sepkoski's Compendium contains 36,340 marine animal genera, and for each genus it provides its known first and last stratigraphie occurrences, i.e., First Appearance Datum (FAD) and Last Appearance Datum (LAD). …