What packrats can teach us about prehistory

Neotoma is a genus of packrat known for its tendency to collect; they seek out nuts, seeds and other treasures, gather them and bring them back to their middens (nests they’ve built from found materials). Because these nests are so dry, their urine hardens almost instantly — it crystallizes and preserves pollen, bones and plant macrofossils that help us better understand past environmental changes and predict future ones.

The team behind the Neotoma Paleoecology Database drew inspiration from these creatures when coming up with a name for their project: a public database of paleoecological records curated by researchers all over the world.

Thousands of people have made contributions to Neotoma’s collection, but paleoecologist Dr. Simon Goring and data scientist Socorro Dominguez Vidaña are part of the core team dedicated to updating and expanding the database. Goring received this year’s M. Lee Allison Award for Geoinformatics from the Geological Society of America for his contributions to the project.

Goring describes Neotoma as “a database of databases.” Among other features, it boasts several pollen databases, from North America, to Europe, to Africa.

“I love the idea that we can use these microscopic pollen grains and look down the barrel of a microscope and see the collection of different pollen types on a slide, and from that, understand what the forests and landscapes looked like 10,000 years ago,” said Goring.

Scientists make models of how climates and ecosystems will change in the future, but to check their work, it helps to project those models back into the past. Paleoecological data is essential. According to Goring, so is collaboration.

“You can’t really do much with one single record in time … it becomes more meaningful when you start looking at multiple records across space,” he said.

You also can’t do much with a database that isn’t organized, comprehensive and clearly searchable. So, Neotoma collaborated with a team of UBC master’s of data science students to turn centuries’ of environmental information into usable data.

When she began work on Neotoma, Dominguez was a master’s of data science student at UBC who didn’t have any background in ecology.

“When we talk about data science, we tend to extrapolate a lot of things to the tech world,” she said. Data is everywhere though. For paleoecology researchers, Dominguez’s expertise in mining journal articles for data to add to Neotoma was crucial — even if she didn’t always come in with a full understanding of the intricacies of pollen records.

“Even being introduced to the laboratories where all of these things are happening and [being] able to witness it, I sometimes feel like I get impostor syndrome,” she said.

Dominguez watched researchers take trips out to lakes and run tests on sediment samples — far from her own research background. Though she felt that the data collection aspect of Neotoma was outside her area of expertise, she took over once their findings needed to be organized and represented in ways that researchers could easily work with. “I wish I could understand what they’re doing, but at the same time, for me, it’s fun to see that what I do also helps them.”

As a living database, Neotoma is constantly evolving. For Goring and Dominguez, this involves working with new groups of researchers and thinking about how they can present data in different ways. Goring emphasizes the importance of involving social scientists who can help others learn about equity and fairness in data use.

Recently, Neotoma removed data that included human remains, out of respect for the descendant populations that still occupy the land.

“We need to respect the historical issues around that peopling and the de-peopling of these places,” said Goring. “I think that is why something like Neotoma [moves] beyond just sharing data. We actively intercede in data access to some degree, because we make decisions about what data is [and isn’t] available, and how that data is made available.”

The Neotoma team is also reflecting on how they approach CARE — collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility, ethics — principles for Indigenous data governance, which are especially important when working in a field centred around understanding land and environment..

“I don’t think like someone who is steeped in a First Nations heritage … I think of data in a very different way,” said Goring. “I think of data like individual objects.”

Meanwhile, Indigenous data sovereignty leaders, including the Indigenous Data Justice toolkit, describes how historical artifacts hold cultural legacies that carry their own Indigenous protocols around privacy and ownership — which can vary immensely from tradition to tradition and nation to nation.

“It’s so powerful … to see this very urban landscape transformed into a landscape in which humans and plants and different kinds of animals coexisted for thousands of years before we as colonizers and settlers came here,” said Goring.

As a living database, Neotoma is constantly evolving.
As a living database, Neotoma is constantly evolving. Bessie Guo / The Ubyssey