‘Living’ figures

8 07 2021

Have you ever constructed a database and then published the findings, only to realise that after the time elapsed your database is already obsolete?

This is the reality of scientific information today. There are so many of us doing so many things that information accumulates substantially in months, if not weeks. If you’re a geneticist, this probably happens for many datasets on the order of days.

While our general databasing capacity worldwide has improved enormously over the last decade with the transition to fully online and web-capable interactivity, the world of scientific publication still generally lags behind the tech. But there is a better way to communicate dynamic, evolving database results to the public.

Enter the ‘living figure’, which is a simple-enough concept where a published figure remains dynamic as its underlying database is updated.

We have, in fact, just published such a living figure based on our paper earlier this year where we reported the global costs of invasive species.

That paper was published based on version 1 of the InvaCost database, but a mere three months after publication, InvaCost is already at version 4.

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Logbook of Australia’s ancient megafauna

20 11 2019

FosSahul_transparent_larger

Australia is home to some of the most unique species worldwide, including egg-laying mammals, tree-climbing, desert-bouncing and and burrow-digging marsupials, and huge flightless birds. While these animals are fascinating, the creatures that used to roam Australia’s landscape thousands of years ago were even more remarkable — these included wombat-like beasts as big as rhinos, birds more than two metres tall, lizards more than seven metres long, and a marsupial lion as big as a leopard.

Just how and why these animals went extinct has been challenging scientists for decades. But examining dated fossil records is one of the primary ways we can look into the past. The ever-increasing number of fossils and the advances in dating techniques have produced a wealth of material we can use to reconstruct the long-lost past.

DiprotodonEven with these data, it has been a struggle to gather enough fossils for large-scale analyses because reports of these records are usually scattered across the scientific literature, with no standardised quality control to make them comparable to each other. Designing a way to standardise these records is therefore important to avoid misleading conclusions.

The FosSahul database was first established in 2016 to try to alleviate these problems — it gathered all the fossil specimens for large animals (excluding humans) from the Late Quaternary (up to ~ 1 million years before present) across the region known as ‘Sahul’, the combined super-continent that included New Guinea and Australia when sea levels were much lower than they are today.

While FosSahul was an important step, the database needed to be updated. First, the quality rating of the fossil dates in the original version was a little subjective and lacked transparency in some cases. This is because the database did not capture enough detail to be able to reproduce all the steps leading to a particular quality rating. Second, given that new fossils are discovered regularly, updates are necessary to include the latest research. Read the rest of this entry »