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Author Interview: Justin Adams on a New Digital Fossil Archive (Part 2)

False-color image of the fossil baboon Papio angusticeps, from Adams et al. 2015. CC-BY.
False-color image of the fossil baboon Papio angusticeps, from Adams et al. 2015. CC-BY.

Yesterday, we started an interview with Justin Adams, senior author on a recent PLOS ONE paper discussing a newly available set of 3D digital fossils. Here is the thrilling conclusion to our conversation involving fossil mammals of South Africa!

Q: Are there any specimens that are your “favorites”? Why?

A: Isn’t that like asking a parent to pick their favourite kid? Haha…. That’s a tough one to answer. There are a few of the specimens, like the false sabre-tooth Dinofelis piveteaui from Kromdraai A (KA 61) and Dinofelis barlowi skulls from Bolt’s Farm Pit 23 (BF 55-22 and BF 55-23), that are incredibly well-preserved and iconic. And sabretooths… well they bring back childhood memories of the ‘paleoart’ in National Geographic and ZooBook that started me down this road. I suppose I have a bit of a soft spot for the type specimen of extinct jackal Canis brevirostris (STS 137) because I ‘re-discovered’ it during the course of the project in the general collections where it had been misplaced at some point. Ultimately, though, I’ve got a lot of academic interest in antelopes, pigs and hyraxes – so I suspect there will bit a bit of bias towards those groups as we grow the archive.

Q: I noticed you have the data available via several different portals–was there any particular reason behind this?

A: There were a few reasons why we decided to make the data available through different channels. Originally we were debating setting up our own server to manage the data and downloads, but around that time Eric Delson was sharing some primate data from the AMNH via MorphoSource (www.morphosource.org). After some discussion with Doug Boyer (and Seth Kaufman, who also ultimately provided a lot of technical assistance), it was clear there was no reason to reinvent the wheel. Beyond that, using MorphoSource had the added benefit of advertising that the data management and access infrastructure already exists for other groups who might be inspired to post their datasets.

We created a separate webpage for the archive (http://www.sapalaeo.com/dnmnh-archive) because we wanted to have a very visually-oriented interface, so that people less familiar with the specimens could readily see what elements are preserved, as well as immediately see the basic data about the specimen (e.g., locality, original citation and taxonomy). While there are screenshots of the surface scans on MorphoSource, to see the specimens you have to select based on specimen number. Simultaneously, we also wanted to provide a place to post updates to the archive and other datasets that don’t fall under the mandate of MorphoSource as a 3D data resource, such as site databases, spreadsheets, dental metrics, specimen photos, etc., that we view as being equally important to get out there.

Skull of the fossil hyrax Procavia antiqua, from Adams et al. 2015. CC-BY.
Skull of the fossil hyrax Procavia antiqua, from Adams et al. 2015. CC-BY.

Q: How do you see this database and others growing in the future?

A: Actually, in the time since submitting our manuscript for publication we have already moved forward with capturing more surface scan and tomographic data from the rest of the Ditsong Plio-Pleistocene Section non-hominin collections. I am hoping to get the next round of ~60 surface meshes and about a dozen more microCT datasets we have collected during our last field season posted by the end of November. In the short term, I have my own wish-list of specimens that I would like to get digitised, but I would also like to add an interface to our website where researchers can provide requests and suggestions to make the archive work for the larger community. I’d also like to work with the Ditsong to create a separate archive of modern African mammals. In the long term, there are thousands of reasonably complete specimens spanning basically every Order and Family of African mammal the Section collections… so I don’t see this digitising process ending any time soon!

Obviously there are many fantastic digitisation initiatives out there that are making their published collections accessible to researchers and the community. What I hope this project highlights, particularly for fossil repositories in countries with limited internal budgets and resources, is that forming partnerships with visiting researchers can bring in a whole new level of accessibility and visibility to their collections.

Thank you, Justin, for taking the time to tell us a little more about the new database. If you haven’t already, check out the fossils themeselves on the DNMNH Archive Page or the data posted on MorphoSource.

Citation
Adams JW, Olah A, McCurry MR, Potze S (2015) Surface Model and Tomographic Archive of Fossil Primate and Other Mammal Holotype and Paratype Specimens of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, Pretoria, South Africa. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0139800. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139800

[note: I did some very light editing for punctuation, etc., in a few places]

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