Fossils in storage: How do you sort through the backlog?

Yesterday, I posted about Pegomastax africanus, a parrot-like dinosaur whose fossil was discovered not in a remote waste in some far corner of the world, but in a rock that had sat in storage at Harvard University for 50 years.

In the post, I tried to explain why something like that could happen. The simple fact of the matter: A successful archaeological or paleontological dig will produce far more material than the original scientists have time (or money) to sort through, process, and examine. So lots of stuff ends up sitting in storage.

That led BoingBoing reader Matt Fedorko to some interesting speculation:

"…This seems like a perfect opportunity to exploit 3D scanning technology to put the shapes of fossils, at least, into some kind of digital storage area where other researchers could look at a dig's haul and start to work with them spatially, or beside any of the other data that is collected in the field or logged during the cataloging procedure."

Now, Charles Q. Choi, a journalist who wrote about the discovery of Pegomastax africanus, says that Matt's idea isn't all that far-fetched. In fact, scientists already do something like this with the fossils that do get closely examined.

Laser scanning of fossils to create 3-D models of them is becoming increasingly common. These models are key to computer simulations exploring how dinosaurs might have moved, and serve as the blueprints for replicas created using 3-D printers. Such 3-D printed fossils open up the possibility of 3-D printed dinosaur robots, a massive geek conjunction of lasers, dinosaurs and robots all in one package. More prosaically, the ability to hold a fossil in your hands can help paleontologists better imagine how bones of unknown species might fit together into skeletons.

When we talk about a backload of unexamined fossils sitting in storage, we aren't talking about piles of T-Rex femurs stacked up behind the Ark of the Covenant in some warehouse. Instead, these fossils are still stuck in slabs of rock and not always in a nice, clean way where you can see an entire fossil skeleton splayed out on a rock surface. Meanwhile, the rock slabs, in turn, are encased in layers of burlap and plaster — a coating that researchers use to protect the fossils in the field and during shipment from the dig site back to the lab.

Choi suspects that 3-D imaging might be a tool that could help scientists more quickly sort through all those white lumps to see which ones deserve attention.

Instead of removing fossils from their matrices and then laser scanning them, why not try creating 3-D scans of them while they are still trapped within the rock? Imagine 3-D models of all these vast libraries of fossils placed online where students in schools all around the world might take a look at them either on their computers or as 3-D replicas.

This idea is part of Choi's ongoing series "A Modest Proposal". You can read the full post at his Assignment Impossible blog.

Image: Alex Harrison, Appalachian State University