Vertebrate Palaeontology Searching
25th September 2003
Imagine trying to express a search like this:
I want to see papers written by Bakker in 1988 on Kimmeridgian
stegosaur metacarpals found on the Isle of Wight and held in the
Natural History Museum.
If the exact paper you want doesn't exist, there are seven degrees
of freedom that a clever search-engine could slide along to find
papers that would be interesting to you:
There's nothing on this subject by Bakker, but there are
suitable papers by John Ostrum, who he studied under, and by
Greg Paul, who studied under him.
- Year of publication.
There nothing from that year, but we have papers from 1986 and
- Geological age.
We don't have any papers on stegosaur metacarpals from
the Kimmeridgian, but we do have some from the Tithonian.
We don't have Kimmeridgian metacarpals of stegosaurs,
but we do have some from ankylosaurs.
Our Kimmeridgian stegosaur material doesn't include any
metacarpals, but we do have some manual phalanges and some
None of our stegosaur metacarpals are from the Isle of Wight, but
we have some from Dorset.
Of the stegosaur metacarpals we know about from the Isle of
Wight, none are held in the BMNH, but we know of some in the
Oxford University NHM.
In the absence of better hits, such an engine might offer up a paper
written by Greg Paul in 1989 on Tithonian anylosaur manual phalanges
from Dorset held in the OUMNH.
### Rank by number of degrees of slippage?
### Allow users to specify which axes are most/least significant.
### View and rotate a 3d slice of the slippage space to see what
areas are best represented (and which areas, because they're
sparsely populated, will make good research subjects.)
To make this work, the searching system would need to have six
``thesauri'' (in the most general sense of structured collections of
- A tree of authors, indicating who has studied under whom; or a
graph of authors, indicating who has co-authored with whom.
- An ordered list of geological ages; or a tree indicating the
containment of ages withing epochs, etc.
- A tree indicating the phylogeny of the supported taxa,
indicating (for example) the containment of Maniraptora within
- A graph representing the osteological components of vertebrate
skeletons and the linkages between them - both physical links
(metacarpals are next to manual phalanges) and analogical
links (metacarpals are analogous to metatarsals).
- A grid of locations indicating the distance between them.
- A grid of collections indicating the distance between them and
maybe also a tree or graph indicating institutional
(Slipping year of publication is trivial, of course: we don't need a
structured authority file to tell us that 1986 is two years earlier
These thesauri would need to be provided by experts in the field.
Experience shows that building them is usually more work than people
expect, and is in any case an inexact science. That's OK: even a
vague, imprecise and error-strewn thesaurus will yield useful
### New sites can "nuzzle up to" the network.
### Guess which bits of title/abstract are author, taxon, etc.