Introducing the Open Dinosaur Project

Hello, and thanks for dropping by at the Open Dinosaur Project.  This blog is part of a wider project, in which we hope — with your help — to make some science.  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.

Who are “we”, I hear you ask.  The core ODP team is Andy Farke (curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, California), Matt Wedel (Western University of Health Sciences, Pomona, California) and Mike Taylor (University College London).  We’re all researching and publishing scientists, specialising in dinosaurs — although up until now Matt and Mike have concentrated on sauropods.

As for who you are: if you care about dinosaurs, and want to make some science, then you can be involved.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a seasoned professional palaeontologist, a high-school kid or a retired used-car salesman: so long as you can conduct yourself like a professional, you’re welcome here.

And now, for the gory details. . .

Once Again, The Research
We will create a comprehensive database of skeletal measurements for ornithischian dinosaurs, with the goal of investigating the evolution of locomotion and limb proportions in this group.

Why Ornithischians?
In terms of locomotion, ornithischians–the group of dinosaurs including stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, iguanodonts, horned dinosaurs, “duck-billed” dinosaurs, and more–are ridiculously diverse. From a bipedal ancestor, ornithischians evolved quadrupedality at least three times–in thyreophorans (ankylosaurs+stegosaurs), ornithopods (iguanodonts, duck bills, and relatives), and ceratopsians (the horned dinosaurs). This is an intriguing transition, but one that has received almost no study.

The Big Questions
A number of questions are driving the project. Some of them may be answered immediately. Some may be answered later. Some may turn out to be unanswerable in the present study. This is all part of how science works! From the very start, we want to keep the spirit of inquiry open and freely accessible for everyone.

  • Why did ornithischians evolve quadrupedality multiple times? Was it consistently associated with an increase in body size?
  • Did different groups of quadrupedal ornithischians arrive at this body form in similar ways, or did they have different strategies?
  • How diverse was the body plan of ornithischian dinosaurs?
  • Did different clades of ornithischians scale the relative proportions of their limb bones in different ways?

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 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 – – 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!

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.

About Mike Taylor

By day I am a computer programmer, specialising in interoperability through standard information protocols such as XML, Dublin Core, ANSI/NISO Z39.50 and SRU/SRW. By night, I am a palaeontologist, specialising in sauropod dinosaurs. In between, I am husband to a wonderful wife and father to three gorgeous boys. I like pork.
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15 Responses to Introducing the Open Dinosaur Project

  1. Claudia Koltzenburg says:

    excellent initiative, much luck!

  2. 220mya says:

    What is your plan for dealing with two different references that provide conflicting measurements for the same specimen, or even worse, a single reference that provides conflicting measurements for the same specimen?

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    Hi, Randy, good to hear from you. At this stage, I think the truth is that we don’t — yet — have a plan. As with all projects, we’ll only fully understand what we’re doing once we’ve been under way for a while. I guess the obvious thing to do is wait for tie-breaker measurements (from yet another publication or better still from pers. obs.), and otherwise discard the conflicting measurements. But if you have an alternative, we’ll be happy to hear it.

  4. Note that Barrett, Henderson and Maidment currently have a NERC-funded project to do similar things; I hope you join forces. Great idea though!

  5. Zach Miller says:

    So only ornithischians. Good! That narrows things down considerably.

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    John, we’ve spoken with Paul and Susie, and established that their and our projects don’t overlap too much. Hopefully they’ll be able to make use of the data we gather in their own work. (I didn’t know Don Henderson was also involved in that, though — nice!)

  7. Pingback: Progress Report: Day 1 « The Open Dinosaur Project

  8. Andy Farke says:

    Re: Randy’s earlier question, we’ll likely use either tie-breaker measurements, or go with the paper with the most complete data. As Mike said, this is all a work in progress, and we’re making some of it up as we go!

  9. 220mya says:

    I think the cases where you have conflicting published measurements will likely be rarer than we think. If this is the case, you might as well just throw the specimen out out of the analysis unless you have good reason to trust one reference over another, or you have first-hand measurements from someone.

  10. Andy Farke says:

    I guess part of it might depend on what you’d define as a conflicting measurement – is it just a case where two papers present measurements that differ only slightly (say, 1-5 percent)? Or a case where there is an egregious difference of 20 percent, or where one author says an element is present and the other author says it’s missing? I’d say the former case is minimal concern, and the latter case is grounds for throwing out measurements.

  11. Games review says:

    always good luck!!! … and your noble ideals may soon become reality

  12. Heinrich Mallison says:

    you can always contact people at the housing institution and ask nicely that they check 😉

  13. 220mya says:

    Yes – it was the egregious differences I was talking about. Differences of 1-5% are still likely to show more signal than noise given that you are analyzing across all Ornithischia. Now, those 1-5% discrepancies might make a big difference if you were just studying the limb bone scaling of one species.

  14. Andy Farke says:

    Yes, agreed, Randy! At present, I don’t know that we’ll get enough specimens to look at limb bone scaling within one species (indeed, that’s not even really a goal of the project at the moment). . .but, we’ll hopefully be able to get enough entries of enough specimens measured by different individuals to at least get an idea of what sorts of error are involved.

  15. Pingback: The Analyses Ahead « The Open Dinosaur Project

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