Invertebrate Paleontology Curation

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Statement of Purpose

Invertebrate Paleontology (IP) collections are one of the most important resources available to paleontologists. They serve as vast repositories of data on invertebrate fossils, including potential data for future paleontological research. Collections are essential resources whose care and curation need to be documented. Published guidelines for the curation of collections are in place, but there has not been a consensus as to how to establish best-practice standards. Setting standards will lead to consistency in the curation, organization, and use of all invertebrate paleontology collections, but standards cannot be set without a clear understanding of how the current curation practices vary. Based on a survey of curation procedures in 23 invertebrate paleontology collections there are four major areas of concern that need to be addressed to make standardization of collections possible:

  1. data capture and uncurated backlogs;
  2. type organization;
  3. secondary type designations; and
  4. preventative conservation practices.

A comparison of collection procedures in other collection disciplines was useful in finding innovative solutions to common problems. Staff at invertebrate paleontology collections need to work together to address shared issues and look to other collection disciplines as a means to work toward standardization and bridge the gaps between the disciplines.


Jessica Cundiff

Guidelines for curation and management

There are several published guidelines in use by collections for the curation and management of IP collections including:

  • White and Allmon (2000) [1]
  • Collier et al. (1990 )[2]
  • Collins (1995) [3]
  • Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC 1994) [4]
  • National Park Service (NPS 1990) [5]
  • United States Geological Survey (US Department of the Interior 2006) [6]

Sometimes institutions develop their own departmental or institutional guidelines usually give a broad generalization of how specimens in all collections within a museum or institution should be curated, but it is unclear if the in-house guidelines for the seven collections were formulated from published information.

Processing of Specimens

This area of curation can be divided into the fundamental processes of:

  1. acquisition and accession
  2. handling of type material
  3. taxonomic identification and updates
  4. labeling, archiving collection documents, and data capture

This information gets to the heart of the curation procedures of a collection.

Acquisition and accession

The acquisition (specimens acquired and transferred to a museum) and accession (legally accepting and recording a specimen as a collection item) procedures are the integral legal steps for the institution as a whole. These steps assure that all international, federal, state, and local laws and regulations have been followed, and the museum can accept the material without problems. The remaining specimen curation by the IP collection process should begin only after these essential steps are completed.

Specimen material is generally acquired in several ways from numerous sources including:

  • field collecting
  • gifts and donations
  • purchases
  • material acquired for in-house research (e.g., graduate student and curator collections)
  • material acquired from other museums and institutions

Institutions should have a formal accession process to fully document material coming into the collection including a Deed of Transfer or Deed of Gift form be filled out to transfer ownership of the specimens. In addition, further documentation, including permits, is required, showing that the specimens were legally collected. For tax deductible donations additional Gift-in-Kind paperwork may be required. Because of the legal liabilities, approval by the departmental or divisional chair and/or the museum director before the accession process is complete often is required.

Handling of type material

The process of cataloging type material is the same as it is for the main collection, including labeling and numbering, taxonomic identification, organizing, and data capture (for most collections, data capture involves entering specimen information into a database system). Type material is handled separately because these are the specimens that are designated as the name bearer for a specific scientific name published in the scientific literature. This material can be a single specimen or series of specimens upon which a taxonomic species is based.

Primary types

These are specific specimens upon which the description of a new species is based (i.e., holotype, paratype, lectotype, and neotype).[7] Types should be cataloged and databased with the proper reference information, including publication and taxonomic history. In most collections primary types are stored in a separate area although they can be stored with general collections if otherwise marked or labeled.

Most IP collections organize their type material either taxonomically or by author and date of publication, but in some collections, type material is dispersed throughout the general collection.[8] Additional methods of type organization, including organization by geologic age, journal, catalog number, and only the publication date are also in use.

Secondary types

Secondary type material is also sometimes called hypotype, figured, mentioned, measured, referred, identified, cotype, paratype, plastotype, homeotype, and type (5 hypotype) . All of this terminology is confusing because paratype and cotype are the only terms with any standing in the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Secondary types are referred, measured, or figured specimen in the original description that are not the primary type.[9] Most collections that have primary types stored in a separate area place their secondary types along with the primary types


Labeling is an important part of the cataloging process. Specimens that are not properly numbered and labeled easily can be misplaced within the collection. All collections use some type of sequential numbering system in place with a standard collection prefix (e.g., MCZ 100000). In some collections separate prefixes for each major collection or catalog series are used. In most collections, labels are stored with specimens, and associated documents in a separate file, a minority store both labels and associated documents with the specimens.

Archiving collection documents

Original and supporting documentation is an essential part of any collection. Documents such as field notes, correspondence, catalogs, maps, and photographs provide information on the acquisition, provenance, and use of specimens. Archiving these documents should be part of the curation process because the information they provide is irreplaceable and enhances the collection’s value. Even in institutions with a registrar or archivist it is generally the collection staff who archive documents, with copies of some paperwork, such as loan invoices, accession forms, correspondence, field notes, and photographs that are sent to the registrar and/or institutional archives if these exist at their institution.

Data capture

Data capture in IP collections can be from a variety of data sources and often two or more sources are used including:

  • card catalogs
  • collection catalogs/ledgers
  • specimens and labels
  • literature
  • capture sheets or cards
  • field notes

For maximum utilization, computerization is an important part of the data capture process and, in most IP collections, staff currently are working to database their collection. Numerous database programs are in use including Specify, KE EMu, Mesonyx, and Arctos. It is not unusual for there to for databasing to be incomplete but moving forward with a policy and working through backlog is important.

Arrangement of Main Collection

The arrangement of specimens within a collection can vary depending on the level of curation of material and how the collection historically has been used. The majority of IP collections use the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology [10] as the standard for the arrangement of the collection using a combination of taxonomic, stratigraphic, and geologic age, resulting from the level of curation and size of uncurated backlog. In some collections, separate stratigraphic collections still are maintained that might never be incorporated into the general collection, because researchers often want to easily access material from a specific age or stratigraphic unit.

Conservation of Specimens

IP collections, because the nature of the material, have been considered to be robust and indestructible, with minimal conservation required other than repair of broken specimens (White 2000). However, there is an increasing awareness of the problems of preservation of fossils and the need to prevent further deterioration. To assess the status of conservation practices, representatives ofeach IP collection was asked for information on the adhesives and consolidants used for repair of specimens and the preventative conservation practices they follow.
Three types of adhesives and consolidants for repair of specimens are commonly reported in IP collections:

  1. polyvinyl butyrals(PVB), which are acetone or ethyl alcohol-soluble and include Butvar and the similar Arcryloid B72
  2. polyvinyl acetates (PVA), which generally are water-soluble and include Elmer’s glue, Vinac, and Jade R
  3. PaleoBond, a cyanoacrylate or superglue, developed specifically for fossil specimens.

Survey data showed good preventative conservation practices in place in a number of collections with monitoring on the following preservation issues:

  • Temperature and relative humidity
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  • Pollutant monitoring including monitoring for and preventing pyrite disease (oxidation of the mineral).

Access and Use of Collections

The primary purpose of IP collections is for research by and training of paleontologists and systematists. Access and use should be limited, but only to the extent to ensure the security of the collections and to protect specimens from damage or loss.

Specimen use

Student or thesis collections

Many museums have graduate students working in or associated with the collections who are compiling field collections for their thesis or dissertation work. In the majority of institutions some type of policy is in place for collections compiled for graduate studies. Students may be required or expected to reposit the material collected during their studies.

Teaching and exhibition

It is important to have policies in place to ensure the security and conservation of specimens being used for teaching or exhibition.

Loan policies

A loan is a temporary transfer of a specimen or lot of specimens, generally for research, for a specified period of time. All incoming and outgoing loans should be documented with a clear understanding of the loan agreement. Placing loan policies online increases accessibility.

Destructive sampling

Destructive sampling usually is a technical analysis that involves the selection and removal of a specimen from a lot, or a portion of a single specimen, for invasive study. [11] In IP collections, certain taxa, especially if members are small,cannot be studied without some form of preparation or sampling that is potentially somewhat destructive. For example, some groups, such as bryozoa, corals,and sponges must be sawed then polished, or thin sectioned, for proper identification and study. Care must be taken to ensure that well-preserved specimens are not destroyed and sampling should only be allowed when the potential knowledge gained outweighs the sacrifice of the specimens. [12] Even in collections where destructive sampling of specimens is allowed, most do not permit destructive sampling of type material, rare or unique specimens, or specimens that are limited in number. It is advisable to require that all products, data, and any resulting publications must be returned.

Specimen requests

Photographic requests

Researchers, visiting or not, often request photographs of specimens for comparative purposes and/or if they plan to describe and publish on specific specimens in the collection. Permission to photograph and replicate specimens must be documented and conditions (e.g., copyright permissions) must be specified to ensure that the photograph or replica will be used in the legal and proper manner. Most collections allow visitors to take photographs and often staff require permission forms for photographic requests, whether photographs are taken by the institution or visitor. Some institutions charge a fee for commercial use of photographs. Some also specify that the museum or institution must be credited as the source in the photograph caption.

Specimen and locality data requests

Outside researchers often request specimen and locality data. Generally, specimen information for researchers is provided and not censored in any way. There is an ethical obligation by collection staff to ensure that sensitive information, such as detailed locality information, is not released to the general public or commercial fossil collectors. [13] Data for commercial or public use is therefore often limited or released only on a case-by-base basis.

Specimen retrieval

Being able to retrieve specimens from the collection is an essential part of the curation and management of collections. Databasing of collections has helped make specimen retrieval a more efficient process by allowing data on a specimen’s location within the collection to be captured. Most collections use both electronic (e.g.,database search, interactive maps) and hard copy (e.g., lists, floor plans, maps) guides that are used for specimen retrieval. Relying on memory or the organization of the collection as a finding guide is not recommended.

Source Material

Cundiff, Jessica. Working Toward Standardization: A Survey of Curation Procedures in Invertebrate Paleontology CollectionsPdf logo - small.gif, 2011. Collection Forum 25(1):22–61. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.
By surveying a representative sample of collections and developing an overall view of curation procedures in invertebrate paleontology, this research addresses the following major objectives:

  1. document the current state of curation procedures in many major invertebrate paleontology collections in North America
  2. shed some light on the reasons behind the lack of an accepted standard for the management and curation of invertebrate paleontology collections
  3. look at the feasibility for standardizing curation procedures in the future, and help move collections towards a best-practice standard by defining the advantages and disadvantages
  4. compare the curation procedures in invertebrate paleontology with procedures in other collection disciplines, as a means to find innovative solutions and bridge the gaps between the disciplines.


Paleontology Portal - Collection Management Module - The site is divided into four sections describing the main activities in managing a fossil collection. The functions of each activity are explained with detailed information, samples of documents and forms from museums, and links

Paleontology Portal - Fossil Preparation Module -This site is divided into four sections describing the main activities of fossil preparation: History; Collecting; Revealing; Studying. The functions of each activity are explained with detailed information, including various documents developed by museums and preparators.


  1. White, R.D. and W.D. Allmon (eds). 2000. Guidelines for the Management and Curation of Invertebrate Fossil Collections Including a Data Model and Standards for Computerization. The Paleontological Society Special Publication 10. 260 pp.
  2. Collier, F.J., M. Brett-Surman, M.S. Florence, C.K. Ito, E.A. Knapp, D.A. Kysar, D. Levin, R.W. Purdy, and J.W.M. Thompson. 1990. Procedures in Recording Specimen-Related Data. Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. 144 pp.
  3. Collins, C., ed. 1995. The Care and Conservation of Palaeontological Material. Butterworth-Heinemann, Ltd., Oxford. 139 pp.
  4. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. 1994. Guidelines for the care of natural history collections. Collection Forum 10(1):32–40.
  5. National Park Service. 1990. Museum Handbook, Part I, Museum Collections. US. Department of Interior, Washington, DC. 850 pp.
  6. US Department of the Interior. 2006. Departmental Manual Part 411, Museum Property Handbook. (20 December 2015).
  7. Frizzell, D.L. 1933. Terminology of types. The American Midland Naturalist 14(6):635–668.
  8. White, R.D. 2000. Guidelines for the documentation and care of invertebrate fossil collections. Pp. 51–63 in Guidelines for the Management and Curation of Invertebrate Fossil Collections Including a Data Model and Standards for Computerization (R.D. White and W.D. Allmon, eds.). The Paleontological Society Special Publication 10. 260 pp.
  9. Cato, P., J. Golden, and S. McLaren. 2003. MuseumWise: Workplace Words Defined. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. 381 pp.
  10. Paleontological Institute. 1998–2005. Moore, RC and other editors 1953–2009, Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, Volumes A–W. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado and University of Kansas press, Lawrence, KS. (20 July 2006).
  11. Cato, P., J. Golden, and S. McLaren. 2003. MuseumWise: Workplace Words Defined. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. 381 pp.
  12. Cato, P.S. 1993. Institution-wide policy for sampling. Collection Forum 9(1):27–39.
  13. Simmons, J.E. 2006. Things Great and Small: Collection Management Policies. American Association of Museums, Washington, DC. 208 pp.