It’s almost cliché now to say that paleontology is undergoing a digital revolution. The first medical CT (computed tomography) scans of fossils were published nearly 30 years ago, and the first publicly distributed digital dataset for a fossil was pressed onto CD-ROM over 20 years ago. CT scans are almost routine for many vertebrate fossils, laser scanning allows rapid digitization of surface anatomy, photogrammetry helps turn photographs of fossils into accurate digital models, and 3D printing can turn digital fossils back into hard copy. Literally terabytes worth of fossil specimens are sitting on hard drives around the world.
So, how can we get to all of these digital fossils? As a young grad student in the early 2000s, I had visions of a world where I could just go to a website, click the fossil of my choice, and have its full 3D data within minutes. Suffice to say, this world is still largely a glimmer in the future. The reasons for this are myriad—restrictive collections policies from museum administrators who want personal control over each and every use of a specimen, concerns that distribution of digital specimens from museums in developing countries may curtail financial support for care of the actual specimens, and in many cases just limited infrastructure. The validity of these concerns varies from case to case, but even in the best situations infrastructure is often the primary issue. How do you permanently host large datasets and let the world know that the data are available?
Back in 2009, a high school student from The Webb Schools on expedition with my museum chanced across the nearly complete skeleton of a baby duckbilled dinosaur. This two meter-long plant-eater lived over 75 million years ago in what is now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southern Utah, and grew up into the tube-crested Parasaurolophus. The unique fossil offers an unparalleled glimpse into the life of an iconic dinosaur—facilitated in part by CT scans and 3D surface models of the skull and skeleton. Given the scientific importance of the specimen, we also wanted to share these data with the world!
figshare came along at just the perfect time. I was looking for a permanent home for our data, one that had some assurance of long-term accessibility as well as a known name within the scientific community. My own small museum does not have the infrastructure to set up a permanent data archive right now, so figshare's services were immensely valuable. After ensuring I had all of the proper permissions, I uploaded the data, added the relevant metadata, and prepared to go live. One handy aspect of figshare is the ability to assign permanent DOIs to individual data objects; this way, I was able to cite the data in my manuscript. Now that the paper is published, every reader can find the full supporting digital data for the specimen.
No museum has ever made an entire dinosaur skeleton available for download—this little Parasaurolophus is the most digitally accessible dinosaur in the world! Through a variety of formats, ranging from raw CT scan data to surface files to 3D PDF files, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can examine the fossil. With the right equipment, they could even print out a copy for study or teaching. My dream is that this will spur further interest in the fossil, allowing members of the public to examine something otherwise seen only by a handful of scholars. Perhaps other researchers will verify and build upon the work that my colleagues and I started. The future will undoubtedly bring applications and uses for the fossil that we never dreamed of...possibilities that are facilitated by a world with open data.
Andy Farke is the Augustyn Family Curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology and lead author on a study about a new dinosaur specimen in today’s issue of PeerJ. You can find all of his figshare data here.
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