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Now THIS is Open Science!!!

i-7069e56009df207c3632dc8f7c78d6c5-OpenDinosaurProject logo.jpg

Dinosaur fossils have been dug out for a couple of centuries now. They have been cleaned up and mounted in museums and described in papers and monographs. The way this is all done has evolved over time – the early techniques were pretty crude compared to what palaeontologists do today. One of the important techniques is actually quite simple: making measurements of bones. And yes, many such bones have been measured and the measurements reported in the literature. And that literature is scattered all over the place in many different formats in many different journals. Nobody has put all the measurements in one place where one could do statistics with the numbers and perhaps learn something from the exercise.

Now Andy Farke, Matt Wedel and Mike Taylor want to do just that:

We want to put together a paper on the multiple independent transitions from bipedality to quadrupedality in ornithischians, and we want to involve everyone who’s interested in helping out. We’ll get to the details later, but the basic idea is to amass a huge database of measurements of the limb bones of ornithischian dinosaurs, to which we can apply various statistical techniques. Hopefully we’ll figure out how these transitions happened — for example, whether ceratopsians, thyreophorans and ornithopods all made it in the same way or differently.

So, in order to accomplish this enormous project, they founded the Open Dinosaur Project – you can be a co-author of the resulting paper if you contribute! What is the idea? To crowdsource the effort. Published measurements need to be all copied into a single place for analysis. Bones not yet measured as well – if you are at a museum or university or in some other ways have access to the fossils, you can take your measuring tools and go down to the vaults and send in the numbers. They explain:

Constructing the Database

A huge, virtually untapped resource of skeletal measurements resides in the published scientific literature. In order to put these measurements to good use, it is necessary to place the data into a form that can be analyzed mathematically. Essentially, we aim to construct a giant spreadsheet with as many measurements for ornithischian dinosaur limb bones as possible. For simplicity, we will focus on bone lengths and maximum diameters along the shaft. From the forelimb, we will look at the scapula, coracoid, sternal plates, humerus, radius, ulna, and manus (“hand”). Within the hind limb, we will look at the femur, tibia, fibula, and pes (“foot”).

In the old days, this would require a lot of time in the library stacks. Some aspects of the project may still require this. But, a number of scientific papers are now freely available to the general public! So, anyone with an internet connection can help out.

Who Can Participate?

Anyone! We do not care about your age, education, previous paleontological experience, or geographic location. You don’t have to be a professional paleontologist – just a person who is willing to act professionally in the accurate and ethical collection, analysis, and interpretation of real scientific data.

What Can I Do?

It’s simple! Just locate the necessary scientific papers, and start entering data into our spreadsheet. If you have access to real specimens, you may enter these data.

What Do I Get Out of This?

Two things – 1) the thrill of participating in real scientific research; and 2) an opportunity for authorship on a scientific paper. Yes, you read that correctly. All contributors to the database are given the option of joining us as authors for the final published paper. If you opt out of authorship, you will still be listed in the acknowledgments (unless you request otherwise).

How Do I Sign Up?

Simply drop an email to project head Andy Farke – andrew.farke@gmail.com – with your name and preferred email address. If you have an institutional affiliation, please include that also. . .but remember that a formal academic affiliation is not required! In all aspects of the project, we ask that you use your real name rather than an on-line handle or other pseudonym. This is important both for personal accountability, as well as a professional standard. We may not all be professionals, but we will certainly conduct ourselves professionally!

Help! I’m Lost!

Never fear. . .we’re going to publish a series of tutorials in the next few days outlining how to search for scientific literature, what measurements to look for, and other important introductory pieces for those new at the research game.

So if you can, participate. And if the analysis uncovers a new species – there’s a little paper right there as well. And if the project works well for ornithischians, then future projects may turn to theropods or whatever else strikes the paaleontologists’ fancy.

Also nice – the resulting paper(s) will be published in Open Access venues. I am salivating at the prospect of seeing these things published in PLoS ONE and joining the fast-growing Paleontology Collection….

Comments

  1. #1 Claudia Koltzenburg
    September 8, 2009

    yes, isn’t it just great!

  2. #2 chris y
    September 8, 2009

    an opportunity for authorship on a scientific paper.

    Hmmm. Do any of these guys have Erdös numbers under 9?

    No, seriously this is a brilliant initiative. And in the finest tradition of the Victorian maiden ladies who used to count taxa in their gardens year after year and send the figures to people like Darwin.

  3. #3 Joel Redman
    September 9, 2009

    I have to wonder whether someone would feed misinformation to sour the grapes. Just putting my pessimist hat on for a moment.

  4. #4 Nick Gardner
    September 10, 2009

    “I have to wonder whether someone would feed misinformation to sour the grapes. Just putting my pessimist hat on for a moment.”

    Thus why it requires that the measurement be verified by two separate people. ;-)

  5. #5 devaddy
    September 11, 2009

    Sorry to post here if it’s a bit off topic but all the dinosaur blogs seem to have their ‘Create your own topic’ link hidden somewhere out of site.

    This article starts out with what was on my mind. I was pondering if any scientists have considered what I’m about to discuss.

    If you can imagine a timeline of how long dinosaur evidence has been buried, then you get to the point of the Industrial Revolution, then rate of finds and excavations accelerate way beyond what they were previously. With technology for detection underground and the advanced tools to excavate, you have to think, what happens if there is another major disaster on earth? All these bones the scientists have dug up in the past few hundred years are above ground now where our generation can pose for a pictures with thumbs up and big smiles. Eventually, sometime after we all have passed, it won’t be long before we have dug up every last find there is.

    Is there a chance they will they get destroyed by floods, fires, war? Do scientists have to dig up everything they find all the time and go put them in museums? Maybe they can leave a few in the ground at the discovery site or at least house them underground. Surely if all the excavated discoveries found up to now are ever buried or damaged by natural disaster, because they are more exposed, they will not be in the same condition they were found in the first time they were discovered. This includes other finds too such as mummies and other ancient finds. Maybe if we find 1 Sabre-tooth tiger, we can leave the next one discovered…alone?

  6. #6 Chris Nedin
    September 11, 2009

    devaddy,

    The total amount of Mesozoic rocks currently exposed at the surface, and available to be surveyed for dinosaur fossils, is a tiny fraction of the total amount of mesozoic rocks currently existing. In other words, the exposed rock we see at the surface hides a much greater volume of rock which we cannot see or access. As weathering/geological activity erodes the surface exposure, new rock is exposed for us to survey, providing new opportunities to access dinosaur fossils.

    We are unlikely to dig up all dinosaur fossils, however digging up all fossils from an individual species is a different matter – as these may well be restricted to a single locality.

    There is an argument that, once sufficient number of fossils of any one species have been collected, there is little point in collecting more. However, any left in the ground will ultimately be destroyed by weathering/geological processes and lost forever.