The fight for control over virtual fossils

screenshot_12cac8388ef895b9d15ca44e8413b190From Nature, March 6, 2019. (Image: Diprotodon skull by AC Sharp, Museum Victoria, downloaded from phenome10k)

Palaeontologists have been urged to share 3D scans of fossils online, but a Nature analysis finds that few researchers do so.

A decade ago, palaeontologist Jack Tseng set out on a treasure hunt. Not the typical boots and pick-axe affair you might imagine, but one that is relatively common in his field. From his base at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California, Tseng visited museums around the world to examine the skulls of carnivores in their collections. And whenever he encountered one, he asked whether he could take away 3D scans of the specimen. Tseng’s own institution housed skeletons from striped hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, aardwolves and mongooses, as well as skulls from extinct hyenas and dogs. But Tseng, then a doctoral student, needed even more exotic fossils for his research on how carnivores evolved the ability to crush bone. “I was looking for exceptionally complete skulls,” he says.

And so, he travelled. To New York, Washington DC, Beijing, London, Uppsala, ticking off items on his palaeontological shopping list as he went. One place Tseng did not need to visit was the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, even though it holds an unusually near-complete skull of a large extinct hyena. A carnivore specialist at the museum, Manuel Salesa, had already scanned the fossil and sent the data to Tseng directly. Read more…

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