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 – email@example.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….