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Museums: the ultimate databases (was RE: Unified cladistics, et al.)



> From: owner-dinosaur@usc.edu [mailto:owner-dinosaur@usc.edu]On Behalf Of
> NJPharris@aol.com
>
> In a message dated 11/18/99 3:21:54 PM Pacific Standard Time,
> martin.barnett3@virgin.net writes:
>
> > I propose this database keep a record of all known specimens
> down to catscan
> >  details in one place and then send the text-based clipnotes of
> this data to
> >  a website so that it is available to researchers.  I am beginning to
> >  understand that this would not do the wrok for us, more that
> it would help
> >  us having to do the same bits of work many times over
> independently when we
> >  needn't have to.
>
> But the problem is that we often *do* have to.  The study of phylogeny is
> rife with examples of characters that are not easily describable
> in verbal
> form, that various researchers have various interpretations of,
> or that have
> been ambiguously, confusingly, or misleadingly described in the
> literature.
>
> So while I think a graphic database (down the road, when we all have
> supercomputers on our desktops) would be invaluable for this sort of
> investigation, I don't know that a text-based database would do it.

Well, there are some text-based databases out there: TREEBASE
(http://herbaria.harvard.edu/treebase/), for example, where people can post
their data-matricies for easy access and retrieval.  And increasingly big
data matricies are being published on the websites of major journals
(Nature, Science, etc.) where everyone with a computer can access them.

However, we DO have some even better data repositories out there: museums!
The specimens are stored for relatively easy access, there are permanent
staff on hand to manage the collections, and the information is preserved
there in the original packaging, rather than going through all those
interpretive phases (talk with Brochu or Merck or others involved in CAT
scanning projects and find out how much interpretation has to go on in
understanding CAT scans...).

Okay, not every specimen is available from the web: perhaps a major goal for
the next century or two?  For that matter, CAT scan studies have been done
for only a tiny fraction of well-known living taxa: dinosaurs of the
Mesozoic have been preferrentially favored over almost every other taxon in
such studies due to the research interests of Rowe, Witmer, Brochu, etc.

As a pipedream, I could concieve of a future in which each museum is
responsible for maintaining a "virtual collection" (digitally stored
representations of all the specimens), accessible remotely via various
searching methods.  However, I am a fan of hard science fiction, and can
concieve of a future in which most of the Inner Solar System and some
portions of the Outer Solar System have sizable human colonial
populations...

(While I certainly sympathize with the interest on the list in making
Dinosauria a priority of these studies, there is the whole rest of Life out
there that needs to be examined and archived, too.)

So, I would recommend for our lifetimes a more fruitful projects:
Continued, if not increased, activity in descriptive anatomy to determine
the variety of morphologies of Life, past and present;
Continued sampling of the genetic diversity of life;
Continued activity in mapping out the patterns of the anatomical and genetic
diversity;
Publish and archive the results of the sorts of studies mentioned above in
formats accessible to many people.

In other words, keep on doing what we've been doing!!

                Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
                Vertebrate Paleontologist
Department of Geology           Director, Earth, Life & Time Program
University of Maryland          College Park Scholars
                College Park, MD  20742
http://www.geol.umd.edu/~tholtz/tholtz.htm
http://www.geol.umd.edu/~jmerck/eltsite
Phone:  301-405-4084    Email:  tholtz@geol.umd.edu
Fax (Geol):  301-314-9661       Fax (CPS-ELT): 301-314-7843