eFossils - An Interactive Online Community Database for the Study of Human Evolution – LIFT Progress Report

This is one in a series of articles reporting on progress being made by the inaugural recipients of Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT) support.

...with eFossils we are deliberately building systems and techniques that can be repurposed.

Using online tools to map physical destinations such as a store, event or meeting is now commonplace. But what about mapping destinations across time as well, all the way back to the origins of the human species? With eFossils – an Interactive Online Community Database for the Study of Human Evolution, John Kappelman, Professor, Anthropology, and his project team are building a website, www.eFossils.org, that will permit students to do just that as they investigate various lines of evidence for human evolution in a media rich, collaborative online environment.

Background

Child comparing foot to that of Lucy

The eFossils project is an innovative extension of work done over the past twenty years to develop and launch the highly successful eSkeletons and eLucy websites. These and other sites created by Kappelman are collectively known as eAnthro: A Collection of Digital Laboratories.

Begun in the early-1990s, www.eSkeletons.org was the first public digital library that used 3D renderings and animations for the study of skeletal anatomy within an interactive learning environment. The website includes skeletal information about great apes and humans along with nine other primate species. Considered one of the premier sites of its kind, eSkeletons now has a global community of users who rely on tools produced at UT Austin for their own research, teaching, and learning endeavors.

www.eLucy.org provides online information about “Lucy,” a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis, who lived 3.2 million years ago. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, Lucy is world famous because over 40% of her skeleton was recovered. In 2008, Kappelman led a team of researchers at the University who collaborated with the Ethiopian government in conducting the first-ever high-resolution CT scan of Lucy. The eLucy website currently provides lesson plans for teachers that can be used to supplement science classes on human evolution, and learning activities for students; eventually, it will host images obtained from the CT scans. The site was developed using the Digital Archive Service (DASe), a web-based repository for digital materials developed by Peter Keane, Senior Systems Analyst Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS.) In 2009, eSkeletons was redesigned and migrated to DASe as well, to take advantage of the dynamic and sustainable features of the service.

Progess

Based on these past successes, and with the financial support of LIFT, Kappelman and his team are focused on creating the eFossils website which will extend the capabilities of DASe into a web-enabled community of researchers, teachers, students, and “K through grey” fossil enthusiasts. By creating an interactive set of online tools for the eFossils website, the team is facilitating global access to a vast quantity of fossil hominin data that can evolve along with new discoveries and research. A key innovation for the project is the development of web-based templates that will enable student experts to add their own images and research findings to the website as part of their coursework. The work includes additional development in the DASe database and ongoing collaboration with the Human Origins Teaching Initiative (HOTI), an extensive database of paleontological information developed for advanced research. eFossils content draws upon both databases.

Adrienne Witzel, lead eFossils Developer, explains that the project’s methodology is “to focus on developing content for five key periods and fossil sites dating back to 5 million years ago,” rather than attempting to include information on every human fossil ever discovered. By seeding the eFossils website with content from major hominin fossil sites from around the world, the team hopes that researchers and student experts will be inspired to use the online tools to add their own fossils and fossil sites to the website’s database. User contributions will then expand and grow eFossils and make it a “living repository” of information about human evolution.

Another key innovation is the development of a new, interactive web application for viewing fossils through both space and time. Built on Google mapping technology, the website encourages users to contribute and leave their own mark on the investigation of human evolution. As Kappelman observes, “this approach models successful web wikis and is particularly suited to the field of human evolution. What we know is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made. The eFossils website can facilitate and accommodate this growth as “ownership” of the website eventually transfers to the user community.”

On March 5, 2011, this idea was put to a preliminary test when close to 200 people from across the state participated in “On the Track of Prehistoric Humans,” as part of Explore UT. Hosted by the Department of Anthropology, this activity is based on fossilized footprints of three individuals preserved over 3.7 million years ago at Laetoli, Tanzania. Students at the event wet their feet in finger-paints then walked across butcher paper and collected measurements from their own footprints. By regressing these variables against the height of living people, the students predicted the height of the Laetoli fossils. Beginning in May 2011, a web version of the exercise will encourage students and amateur fossil enthusiasts from around the world to participate by generating their own data and uploading their information to the online database.

Almost three hundred students use the eSkeletons and eLucy websites each year in classes at UT Austin

Benefits

With a fossil record that stretches back across more than seven million years and specimens from paleontological locations all around the world, eFossils and HOTI are addressing a critical need to gather and curate this information by integrating it into data repositories that can be used within dynamic websites. As part of the eAnthro suite, the eFossils website joins eSkeletons and eLucy in bringing together an extensive collection of high resolution, high quality scans and images that can be used by a global audience. eFossils also adds an organizational layer that makes the images accessible by anatomical features, geographical location, and geologic age, as well as providing sustainable tools that allow anywhere anytime access to materials previously limited to study in the laboratory by only a select group of current students. HOTI furthers this goal by providing highly detailed geographical, geological, and morphological content for the advanced researcher.

Programming, content, and design work for eFossils is occurring concurrently. This separation of content creation from the design and coding of the eFossils website is significant as it promotes efficiency through parallel teamwork and sustainability through independent development of content and presentation. As Peter Keane, Senior Systems Analyst on the project, notes “with eFossils we are deliberately building systems and techniques that can be repurposed. Programming skills needed for the information architecture and design of the site will not be needed in the future to update and input content.” This means that ongoing contributions from a variety of user communities will be possible.

In February, 2011, there were 974 hits to the current version of eFossils, which is just a splash page. In the past year, it received 9,755 hits.

Next Steps

Near term goals for the project team include continuing to add fossil data to the databases and completing work on the five fossil localities. The footprints exercise used at Explore UT was completed ahead of schedule with a full release version expected by early May 2011. While it is the first activity available on eAnthro Labs, additional activities and labs are also in the works.

Additional time and effort are needed to resolve authentication issues for the expert wiki. This is key to building an online research community that participates in discussions, collaborative experiments, data collection and analyses. Considerations are ongoing about the best ways to use the eFossils site and web-enabled templates to realize this vision of academic community. Plans are already in the works to incorporate the eFossils website into a number of courses at UT Austin.

As a combined suite of online websites about human evolution, eFossils, eSkeletons, and eLucy will continue to have a global impact on public education. eLucy was referenced on the Houston Museum of Natural History and Pacific Science Center websites when they had Lucy on exhibit. The Museum Victoria in Australia is currently using images from the eAnthro sites in their exhibit “600 million years - Victoria evolves,” a permanent exhibition exploring the development of life and landscape over 600 million years, highlighting Victoria’s geology and life forms. The team is committed to continuing and encouraging strong relationships between the websites and other public exhibits.

The eFossils team is using Google mapping technology as part of the interactive website.

Members of the team

Members of the Team

With eFossils, John Kappelman, Denné Reed, Peter Keane, Stuart Ross, Adrienne Witzel (left-to-right) and Suloni Robertson (not pictured) are creating a web-enabled community of fossil enthusiasts.