VAMP: Virtual Australian Museum of Palaeontology
Introducing VAMP! The Virtual Australian Museum of Palaeontology is a digital collection spanning 600 million years of evolution. On this episode, Adele has a yarn with the three palaeontologists behind VAMP: Dr Aaron Camens, Dr Alice Clement and PhD candidate Jacob van Zoelen.
Adele: On today's bonus episode we're stumbling into the 3rd dimension to discuss the Virtual Australian Museum of Palaeontology with the three pioneering palaeontologists leading the project. Get ready, to get digital.
Pals in Palaeo presents VAMP
This is Pals in Palaeo the show where we normally dive into the form, function and family groupings of your favourite fossils, but on today's extra special bonus episode, I have not one, not two, but THREE incredible palaeontologists, all from Flinders University.
In alphabetical order they are Dr Aaron Camens specialising in fossil footprints, Dr Alice Clement am expert on fossil fish and PhD candidate on Diprotodontids and wizard of 3D scanning, Jacob van Zoelen.
Adele: Hello, hello, hello!
Jacob: I'm gonna put wizard in my email signature now laughing
Aaron: Hi, thanks for having us
Adele: No worries! As per usual, I'm speaking to you from Koa Country in Winton, central western Queensland and wish to acknowledge the Koa People as the Traditional Custodians of the land, and recognise their connections to land and community.
Aaron: Thanks Adele, we're coming to you today from Kaurna Country, so we'd like to acknowledge the land here was never ceded, it belongs to the Kaurna People still today. And of course, the oral traditions of First Nations people have a special meaning for us because they are the only people who have the real records of the Megafauna that once walked among us.
Adele: Absolutely, and we acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. Because all three of you haven't been on Pals In Palaeo as yet, although I'm working on it, can I just get you to quickly introduce yourselves, and what it is you work on. Maybe starting with Alice.
Alice: I'm Dr Alice Clement and I am a palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist most interested fish and the early tetrapods. So I really focus on the Palaeozoic vertebrates, so the really old stuff that's 400 or so million years old. And I have a really strong digital focus in my own research. I'm using CT, Synchrotron and Neutron imaging in my own research.
Aaron: Hi my name is Aaron Camens, my pronouns are he/him, and I work in the other end of the evolutionary spectrum from Alice in that I predominantly work with marsupial evolution and fossils from the last 25 million years. I work in a number of different disciplines, so palaeoecology, taphonomy, ichnology and functional morphology and I'm really fascinated by all of those different fields, but it has been ichnology which that has most brought me to the project that we're discussing today, in that, the 3D data associated with fossil footprints is a really important aspect of what we study.
Jacob: I'm Jacob van Zoelen, I'm a PhD candidate and palaeontologist at Flinders University. My speciality is working on the taxonomy and palaeobiology of diprotodontids, which are giant, mostly quadrupedal marsupial herbivores. And I also do a lot of surface and CT scanning, so I'm a co-leader in the Virtual Australian Museum of Palaeontology and I am the lead digitiser for OzBoneVis, which is another project.
Adele: I'm so stoked to be chatting with you all today to celebrate the launch of the Virtual Australian Museum of Palaeontology. As someone who lives in a remote part of the country in outback Queensland, I think this is an absolute game changer and obviously, I'm very passionate about trying to make the science surrounding fossils, as accessible as possible. So, first up, what made you want to start a virtual museum?
Alice: Well, first up, through a lot of our own research, many of us were finding that we were accumulating more and more of this digital data. And, it's big data, and it's really exciting stuff but we needed somewhere to keep it, but what we also found is that we wanted an easier way to share it. And so that was one really the main drivers for wanting to develop a virtual museum.
Adele: Yeah, so were you initially drawn to sharing that data and information with other palaeontologists or just, people who are interested. Like, did you meet someone at a party and they asked "what do you do?" "oh, I'm a palaeontologist", did it spark from that? Or?
Alice: I think first and foremost, one of the first steps that we have is to share our scans or our data with other palaeontologists, but by talking to other people, you realise how many people have an interest in palaeontology, in animals, in evolution, in just shapes and beautiful things. And, that's one of the things that we're really trying to drive home with VAMP, our museum, is that this site and these scans aren't just for researchers. They're not just for scientists. These are for educators, these are for people who are doing outreach and this is for anyone who's just interested in having a look at our scans online.
Aaron: There’s also a really important aspect in terms of data integrity, so one of the ongoing issues we have with this big data is trying to find a place to store it, in perpetuity. And there are very few places that can handle this kind of data. In fact, most universities for example, won't be able to cope with the amount of data that is produced from hundreds and hundreds of really high resolution scans.
So it makes sense to have somewhere where we can combine that data on a national or even international level, rather than having lots and lots of different people trying to find their own solutions to that problem. And having it all in one place makes it much more accessible for everyone.
Adele: Yeah I think that's a really beautiful sentiment.
Jacob: Just to further add to that from my end, travelling to museums all across the country and collecting thousands of specimens for my PhD, one of the questions that kept coming up for me was, "what happens to this data?", "where do you store it?" and I found cases where, I'd find a specimen that someone else had already scanned, and then you had to go and chase up where that is, and a lot of museums just don't have the infrastructure or the systems in place to store all this. So it's like, yeah, the question of where do you put it has been a big one, and that's kind of why I've been part of this project and trying to develop a system where it's all stored in one place and easily accessible.
Adele: Yeah, I can really see this being a big part of Aussie Palaeo in the future, and hopefully, it'll make things so much easier as well. We'll get into the process and the methods of collecting this data in a little bit, but long story short, it can be very time-consuming and we stand of the shoulders of giants. Our research builds on what other people have proposed before us, so if we can make things a little bit easier for people to answer new questions about the fossils we're working on, then we'll be able to take this field of research a lot further. So, how do we digitise fossils?
Jacob: So, basically fossils can be digitised in a number of ways. We have things that can look inside the object like CT and micro-CT and neutron scanning, but one of the cheapest ways and most common ways that fossils are digitised is actually through surface scanning techniques. So this can be done through Photogrammetry, or what is often cheaper and quicker is Structured Light Scanning.
So this is a process where you have a central projector and you have two cameras on either side of that projector, and this projector will project a pattern onto the object, and these two cameras will then reconstruct the surface of this object, based on the changes on that pattern. And by doing this, it's actually really good for palaeontologists because it's portable.
So often we take these devices to the museums and we can undertake most of our digitisation on-site. So, in a day, we can actually accumulate quite a lot of scans by doing this. And of various sizes as well, so from really small things like snails and invertebrates and tiny little rat bones and all that to quite large things like the femur or the skull of a Diprotodon.
Adele: Yeah so just to back pedal, when we say Synchrotron and CT scanning, it's kind of like x-rays for fossils, or objects of varying density, and I think I've read before Jacob that you describe the hand-held scanner that you use as a bit of a space gun? Or was it a space laser gun?
Jacob: Yeah! It's a space laser gun, it just looks really sci-fi but also you know, converts the object into a 3D space so you know it kind of works. That's mainly used for the big objects, because you can't have a mounted scanner so you kind of have to use that as a, as a little gun, essentially.
Adele: Yeah, yours looks a lot cooler than the one I've used. Mine basically looks like an iron, but it has cameras in it and then it sort of flashes light and I thought all my years of playing video games would help me with something like this, because if you're too far away from the object or too close, it'll flash red, and then if you're doing well, it'll flash green, but as it turns out, I'm absolutely terrible at it.
Jacob: It’s a uh, it's a really good yoga exercise I find. Because you have to be very slow and keep a constant distance but yeah.
Alice: A little bit differently to the scanning that Jacob has just been talking about, I work more with CT and Synchrotron and Neutron as we mentioned. And while the scanning that Jake has been talking about is fantastic because it's portable and you could image very large specimens or things preserved in situ, there's CT scanning and Synchrotron scanning.
So a CT scanner is working on the same principle as any x-ray machine that you might find in a hospital. There's an x-ray source and a detector, and typically your specimen or your object will rotate within that x-ray source. And you end up with a series of images or a series of projections that are converted to images that we can then load into a computer and then process them, and then analyse them using specialist software.
And then a Synchrotron is simply a super, super, super high powered CT scanner, essentially. It's so big and so powerful, you build an entire building around the ring. So there's a huge ring of electrons speeding around very, very fast and then eventually they get shot off various beam lines. And so, this is a light source that is something like a million times brighter than the sun. So it's a very, very powerful light source.
So some specimens can be very well suited to conventional CT, if you want very high resolution of a smaller object for example, you might use micro-CT. And if you need a lot of power, that's when you go to the Synchrotron.
And then of course there's Neutron Tomography which is a little bit different again. So neutrons, rather than relying on electrons, is using neutrons. And so, instead of imaging the object for its density, it's imaging the object, depending on what its chemical make-up is. So the neutron tomography can be really interesting when there's specimens that are not responding well to Synchrotron.
So if you have something that's very, very radio dense, or a very, very large object, so if something's very, very iron-rich for example, it doesn't tend to image well at the Synchrotron. But that's when a neutron beam can be really useful. But then on the flip side, there's elements that are almost impermeable to neutrons, anything with water in it for example. And in that case, your best bet is the Synchrotron.
So we've got this whole plethora of techniques available to us now, depending on what sort of sample you have, what sort of size you have, what sort of imagine information you even need to capture from that specimen, so it's a very exciting time for palaeontology.
Adele: Yeah absolutely. And it also depends on your budget as well, since Synchrotron scanning is quite expensive if we were to pay for it out of pocket. But, we are able to apply for grants as well, which is absolutely wonderful.
Jacob: I just wanted to add to that, like, none of these scanning modes, there's no one scanning modality that is essentially better than the other, they all have different advantages, depending on your needs. Structured Light Scanning is really good for getting a large quantity of specimens, but you can't look at the inside.
In fact, there's even a problem with some structured light scanners, they're not great at capturing things like texture. So often, when we collect the scans, we have to collect a whole bunch of metadata associated with that specimen.
You'll get fossils all the time where there are bits reconstructed, like moulded into the shape. And that cannot actually be picked up by the scanner, and, you know, you can mistake that later on down the track. And if you're sharing these scans, often people can, if they've never seen the specimen before, can mistake things like dirt or chips or cracks or pathologies as part of the actual morphology. So, when you're collecting surface scans, often you have to actually take a whole bunch of photos and notes to pair with it as well. Because the idea is to make it as usable as possible for the next person. And also you, because you know, you might not actually look at it until 6 months down the track and completely forget what it looks like.
Adele: Yeah absolutely there's no one size fits all approach to fossils because they are all so unique and different to one another.
Aaron: Ah so at the cheapest end of the spectrum, we've got the Photogrammetry side of things. So this, literally, only needs a camera, and that can even be your phone camera.
So while it is dependent on the resolution or the number of megapixels in the images, you can even do Photogrammetry just on your phone or with your phone, and the appropriate software.
So it's super portable, and, in the footprint work that I do, often we're on crumbling coastal cliffs in the middle of nowhere. We might be several kilometres away from the car. So we can't cast or necessarily sample the footprints, we can't carry a big slab of rock back to the car, up the cliff.
So being able to take a bunch of pictures, that, computer software then can create a relatively high resolution, three dimensional image from, is an incredible tool in these kind of situations. And the other thing is that, in many of the situations in where we're out in these remote environments and the substrate that the footprints is preserved in is quite ephemeral. So it could be in relatively soft clay, or it could be in crumbly sandstone, things that are gonna be washed away in not very much time.
We can have a three-dimensional capture of that footprint or of that trackway, without even needing to cast it, or sometime we're not able to cast it, and that provides a permanent three-dimensional record.
So a really nice example is a trackway that we found over on the west coast of WA, in a tint little under hang on a coastal cliff we found a Thylacoleo trackway, and I took a number of different pictures, through which we were able to reconstruct that trackway. When we went back 6 months later, that trackway was completely gone. So that three-dimensional record is now the only record of that trackway having existed.
Adele: Yeah that's absolutely incredible and so fortunate that you were able to use technology to essentially save that from being lost from human knowledge forever. Sort of, to add on to your point Aaron, we're finding at the moment with our current dinosaur dig site, one of the guys with our team is just using his phone and an app on it to do some LiDAR 3D models, and it's so quick, it's so easy, and I thinks it's really gonna help.
Particularly when those bones are collected and then taken back to the museum and our lab to be prepared, we'll be able to have an idea of you know, how much that site, or that particular spot in that site was changing day to day. And again, it's just another piece of the puzzle that we have.
Aaron: That's another really important point you've raised there actually. So the scanning side of things we've been talking about the study of the fossils themselves, but often the context of the site that they come from can be really important too. And 3D imaging technology has the potential to record that.
Adele: Yeah um, when I tell people "oh I'm going out a dinosaur dig this week", a lot of the time they respond and come back to me with "oh that's sounds amazing! Like, I wonder what it looks like"... you could potentially extend VAMP and include some of that information as well.
Aaron: That's actually a really nice segway into one of the aims of VAMP, which is the teaching side of things. So it's not just about facilitating research but also about facilitating teaching. And there are a whole range of ways in which 3D data is being used to create virtual field trips and things now. So something that we haven't even necessarily looked at yet but could be incorporated is to include that kind of site pr field trip or fossil location data in that virtual environment as well.
Adele: Yeah absolutely and, I've already asked you what made you want to start VAMP but, I, I have to know. Did this project sort of come about during lockdown or was it before or after lockdown?
Alice: Nah so this project did come about before lockdown but of course we've had a few bumps and pauses along the way, but it's been slow bubbling I think just from this accumulation of scans and the realisation that we may scan a specimen and work on it for our own project or for our own teaching, but that then scan has sort of endless downstream potential and opportunities beyond the things that we want to do or can do ourselves. So we might have a particular interest in one aspect of it, you know, the ratio of the limb bone for example, but then there's so many other things other people can do with that dataset as well. They can look inside it, down to histological level and get life history data out of some bones.
It could be used by other people to create an entire digital reconstruction of an animal if they've got the other half of the limb bones for example. So, these scans are just so valuable and I think we recognised that it wasn't fair or it wasn't enough to just use it for our own single project, or our own single episode of teaching. And we really wanted to sort of democratise the access and improve the global reach of this, and open these things up to the endless analyses and uses and ideas that other people will have for these amazing scans.
Adele: Yeah absolutely incredible and as you were talking before I was just thinking oh imagine doing histological sections as you said before without having to destroy the bones. Because often, museum curators aren't OK with us doing destructive analysis so, sawing through the bones to make thin sections or blasting them with lasers to do isotopic analysis. So again, it just opens up a lot of doors and I can see already from the VAMP website that there are a number of museums onboard.
Jacob: And it's not even um, destructive analyses which can damage the specimens. Simply just handling these specimens causes damage. Every time you pick up a fossil, you know, you slowly damage it over time. You'll shine it, you'll polish it with your hands and all that kind of stuff. And so, by having these kins of scans available, it actually reduces the need to often handle the physical specimen. Especially things that are quite large and you need a number of people to, to flip and handle. I had one skull when I was in the states, it took five people to lift and manipulate that skull. And every time you do that it risks damage to the specimen, so by having this stuff available, you can really help preserve these specimens for the longer term.
Alice: And we've seen some recent disasters of museums in the last couple of years, the first one that springs to mind is the Brazilian Natural History Museum that caught fire and they lost loads of their specimens. And so, if you're able to digitise your collection, you do end up with kind of a backup and a copy of existence as it were, in the case of disasters.
Adele: Yeah and war as well. The Spinosaurus holotype was lost during air raids and they might find one that's as good or better but, maybe not. That might have been the best one.
Aaron: And another aspect, is that this has major implications for museum management, in terms of reducing the amount of time that curators need to spend creating access to specimens. So if a specimen is available online, and a lot of people may only need to be able to look at the surface morphology, so instead of visiting a museum collection, from the comfort of their own chair, they can access everything that they need in these museum specimens from wherever they have their computer.
Jacob: And through this access as well, what we're also doing just by making these specimens available is a catalyst for more research. For my stuff anyway, I had to travel to museums all across the world to look at my animals and to get that comparative database, but, once all that stuff is available online, the amount of research on my study group I expect is gonna be much greater over time because it's just gonna be so much easier for people to actually look and compare and undertake studies.
Aaron: So the collection also has really important aspect, in fact the VAMP project in general has a really important aspect in terms of recognition of researcher effort. So the idea is that every single one of these scans will have a DOI linked to it, and that will make them citeable.
So from the point of view of seeing that your research is recognised, just like a paper would be cited, have your uploaded scan cited. So the person who is uploading it, is making it available to the wider world, but at the same time being recognised for that. And this sort of speaks to a big problem or challenge that we have at the moment in that, there is fear that if you upload something or make your scans freely available, that you might have spent a lot of money or a lot of time or both producing, then other people might come in and trump your research. But through making it citeable, it really becomes like any other published scientific endeavour, in that people can acknowledge you for your work.
Adele: And I suppose another concern is that perhaps scans might then be downloaded and 3D printed and then sold.
Jacob: Well, they can be downloaded for some means, but also, it's kind of like flooding the market. If something is freely available, then why would someone pay someone else for it. And also, if it gains awareness for how cool these animals are and these fossils, then what is the harm in doing that?
Alice: But actually, on our website, on VAMP, each specimen or each scan of every specimen is an individual object and as Aaron mentioned, it'll have a DOI linked to it and so on. And actually, depending on where the scan came from, it might be freely to download, or it might be downloadable upon request.
And so, anyone who's considering uploading scans to VAMP need not be worried that their research can be taken without their knowledge or permission, because, the creator of each scan is able to dictate the terms. You're able to dictate the copyright terms, the usage terms, the access terms, and so the power remains in your hands but we collectively build up this resource where we can celebrate all of these scans together.
Adele: Awesome! So, for anyone who might be a curator at a museum who's thinking of potentially joining onboard, you know, the ball's in their court, essentially.
Alice: You mentioned our museum partners, and this is a project that we absolutely couldn't have done without their support. So, so far we've been working with the South Australian Museum, the Western Australian Museum and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
And we've got some other partners as well who helped bring this project to life, and that includes Flinders Microscopy and Microanalysis and initial seed funding was granted to us from the College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University. And then of course, there's the numerous mentors and volunteers and staff who have also been a big part of bringing this project to life.
Aaron: And one other really important participant in this project is Morphosource. So, they provide the online platform, through which we can store all of this data. Because, at the moment, in Australia, we don't have a single server where this kind of data can be stored that has any kind of long term integrity. Because, many of these things are dependent on grant funding and grant funding is often quite a narrow, finite time period. So, by partnering with sites like Morphosource, we can guarantee or at least have a lot more confidence that the scans are going to be available long term, and that data is going to be secure long term, rather than the site crashing next week and us not having enough money to keep it going.
Adele: Yep. We've spent a lot of time talking about the details on how to collect this data. For someone who's just generally interested in palaeontology, they're not a palaeontologist themselves, when they visit VAMP, what kind of fossils will they see? We've mentioned footprints, there's megafauna by the sounds of it... Are there other groups represented as well?
Aaron: In the trace fossil section, we're not just looking at fossil footprints, we're also looking at other types of trace fossils, like for example, bite marks on bones. So there's a whole range of different information that can be gained from them that give us little windows into the palaeoecology of a whole range of different organisms.
Adele: Do you have fossil coprolites as well? Fossil faeces?
Aaron: Uh, not scanned, yet. But we certainly have them in the lab that we could look at getting onto. And we've got some that are most likely from Diprotodon, some that we think are crocodile. There's one or two that have some bits of bone in them, so they're going to be from some kind of predator.
Alice: We should CT scan some of those! See what's inside.
Adele: Yeah absolutely! There could be fossil dung beetles in there as well.
Jacob: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually, like, a Diprotodon one would be actually be really good to put up online, because the amount of times I get asked whether these animals have cubed poop or not, it would just be really nice to send a link of "Nah, there it is". We can stop this...
Alice: But we honestly should! We should, we should get one scanned.
Aaron: Yeah, I think there's at least one Diprotodon one that has voids where the vegetation used to be, so you might get something out of that. But most of them are kind of these, phosphatic nodules, so they're going have almost nothing in them. But those that do have one or two pieces of bone? Yeah, we could look at scanning that. There's a really nice Thylacoleo coprolite that we've got in the lab at the moment but it's from Victoria, so it's one of the Museum Victoria specimens. So, not part of the VAMP project yet. laughs
Adele: For any non-Australian listeners who are confused about the square-shaped poo thing, wombats, uh, which are cute little marsupials that we have around today that dig burrows. They famously have square poop.
Jacob: And yeah. They are distantly related to Diprotodon but they're the, it's the same distance as a kangaroo is to a possum. So it's like they're really sort of not related to each other at all. Um, yeah. And, it's a, a pet peeve of mine.
Adele: The questions you get asked as a palaeo, I love it.
Alice: Yeah, so we, we'd like to say that we're scanning, sharing and celebrating 600 million years of digital Australian fossils. And that's because we've got fossils ranging from the very recently extinct megafauna, such as what Aaron and Jacob were talking about, all the way through to the earliest multicellular life.
So we've got representatives from the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods. So this is, beyond 500 million years ago. And then we've got representatives of each of the major vertebrate groups. So we've got a really good spread of Devonian fish fossils on the site.
So the majority of these are these spectacular three-dimensionally preserved fish from the Gogo Formation in northern Western Australia. So often these are Western Australian Museum specimens, and Gogo is about 385 million years old, and it was Australia's first great barrier reef.
And there’s a really diverse assemblage of fish known from the site and we've got a bunch of these scanned and available on the VAMP website. And so, these are really spectacular because the bone is still preserved as bone and it preserves great detail. The dermal ornament and so on. But we can see the internal structures of a lot of the skulls and the jaws as well so I think the fish are really spectacular.
Adele: Yeah, I remember hearing about some of the Devonian fish from Gogo when I was a student in undergrad, and, there’s a lot of armoured fish, so placoderms, and correct me if I'm wrong, I remember hearing about a specimen that had a fossilised umbilical cord? Is that right?
Alice: Yeah that's right. So that's the mother fish, Materpiscis attenboroughi, that's a really spectacular find. So, that's the other thing about Gogo, it's not just bone that gets preserved but soft tissue. Which is really remarkable, when you consider the age of the site.
So some years ago, people discovered a fossilised umbilical cord which showed that this group of fish, one of the groups of armoured fishes, the placoderms did indeed have internal fertilisation and live birth. And that pushed back the fossil evidence of live birth by some 200 million years or so.
More recently, we're discovering that we can find other fossilised soft tissues such as muscle, but even fossilised organs. So we're finding liver, stomach and heart preserved in some of these amazing specimens and, actually the only placoderm specimen that's ever been neutron scanned has a preserved heart inside of it. And that specimen is available on the VAMP website. We've got quite a few fish fossils, we've got amphibians, reptiles, birds and then a really, really good spread of mammal fossils.
Jacob: And one of the stars is one of the most complete skeletons of a Thylacoleo carnifex, so a marsupial lion. And that specimen's actually really cool, because it's got some cool little pathologies on it, such as some things going on with its vertebrae and weird breaks which kind of gives a little glimpse into the life history of these animals.
Adele: So when you say pathologies, they're things like healed injuries or diseases, right?
Jacob: Yeah absolutely. Each fossil was once an individual, and this one in particular has an interesting story. It's got these, these weird heals going on in its wrists and its back which has implications for its life history and how this animal was living. Whether or not this could interfere with hunting or anything like that, I don't know. But it's certainly an interesting kind of feature of this individual that will now be freely available up online for anyone to kind of look at and do research on.
Adele: Yeah so, is that part of the reason why the Thylacoleo is sort of incorporated into the VAMP logo?
Jacob: I mean, I think it was just chosen because it's a very iconic Australian animal laughing not necessarily that particular specimen. But um, yeah.
Adele: What we can do is, we can cut my audio and then you can say "oh yeah, that's why we decided to make it the logo because
of this one like, cool mascot.
Alice: Yeah, try that again. Absolutely.
Jacob: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's why.
Aaron: Yeah Thylacoleo is really representative of the whole Australian megafauna and the uniqueness of Australian fossils. It's a predator like no other that has lived before, and really, one of the flagship species of our project.
Adele: Ah that's awesome. Um, yeah and it's unusual as well because even though there are a lot of things in Australia that have the reputation that they'll kill you, normally, our marsupials aren't known for being killers. But, Thylacoleo with that massive... it's sort of like a shearing surface along its bottom jaw, like, there's no two ways about it, it was after flesh.
Aaron: Yeah absolutely. One of the most fearsome predators that's ever evolved in the mammal sector I guess in that, it's got a whole range of extra adaptations on what you would normally see in a carnivore. So you've got opposable thumbs, ability to climb, incredible jaw power and the ability to shear through meat and bone. So yeah, it is an incredibly well adapted predator.
Adele: All you need to add to that is the intelligence of an octopus and that's enough reason for me to never go outside ever again.
Aaron: Well actually, just as an aside that's not really gonna go your podcast but um, so I don't know if you saw the um, the, there was a recent movie called Carnifex?
Adele: Oh, no I haven't.
Aaron: That starred Thylacoleo. Um and one of the initial inspirations for that, it was made by a South Australian film company, one of the inspirations for that was that, one of the director's mothers came to Australia for the first time. And she heard about drop bears, and she got so terrified by the idea of them that she didn't leave her car for her whole drive across Australia just about. Um, yeah. So, then the director felt it necessary to make a whole movie about the original drop bear, Thylacoleo.
Adele: Ah, we'll have to get back into that when we do an individual episode, but just to sort of get back into VAMP um, and this is homework for each of you when I do individual podcasts, I will ask you about pop culture references, so think Yowies and things like that. Movies, IMDB references... Jacob, is there anything in particular you think I should check out other than the Thylacoleo with the pathologies? Maybe a diprotodontid?
Jacob: There's a bunch of cool diprotodontids on there. So, there's Diprotodon, of course, which is the big two and a half tonne one. But uh, we also have a specimen, just a little plug for a paper coming out in the next month, one of the most complete Pliocene diprotodontids with soft tissue impressions as well is going to be put up onto the website, so that's kind of cool. There's also a lot of really cool holotypes and all that. So yeah. I forget how many diprotodontids are on there, but there's quite, quite a lot. A lot of specimens.
Aaron: Yeah, that's actually an important point that we haven't covered, and that is that one of the things that we're trying to focus on initially, is to get some scans of a lot of the holotype material. So these are the fossils on which the taxonomy is based. And having them freely available with high resolution scans is going to facilitate a whole range of extra research as well. But even just, the ability to identify the fossils that you're finding. So this is a resource in terms of a comparative collection as well.
Adele: Yeah so, holotypes are the first fossil and they define their species as you said before. And a lot of the time, at least with my stuff, there's just one specimen and that's it. But then, you can have a lot of things that look quite similar and have lots of subtle differences, so I guess, for me who likes to have a bunch of tabs open as well, it would be great to line a whole bunch of specimens up, side by side and just flick through the different tabs to see how different everything looks.
Jacob: Absolutely, that's exactly how I do my taxonomy to be honest with you. I have 50 to 100 digital specimens of the same element lined up, and that's how I compare them. Which would be impossible to do in real life, but in a virtual space, you can do it with ease. And we have a whole bunch of holotypes ranging from little snails to giant crocs available on VAMP. So yeah, we have quite a lot of diversity of taxa.
Adele: And yeah. In terms of how everything's organised, is it organised by group or by time period?
Aaron: There’s a little bit of both in there, in that... So we've got three initial sections in the site. We've got our vertebrate fossils, we've got our trace fossils, and we've got our teaching collection. And the teaching collection is gonna be expanded down the track as well. But within our vertebrate fossils, that section of the site is then sorted taxonomically. So we start off with our very early multicellular life from the Ediacaran period 600 million years ago, and we go through all the different groups of vertebrates that we currently have represented through to the megafauna.
One other thing that would be good to mention as well, we're always on the lookout for new partners. So the next phase of VAMP is going to involve a significant amount of funding to expand this to hopefully, a national scale. We'd really like to get a server on Australian soil, so that we can have all that digital data stored here in Australia. And specimens from both private collections and public collections have the potential to be incorporated into this. However, we do have a range of different challenges in working with privately owned specimens. So this could be one way in which those specimens become more accessible to everyone.
Adele: And is that sort of the end game for VAMP? Or is there something beyond Stage 2?
Aaron: laughing We haven't talked about a stage 3 yet, we're just hoping to get to stage 2 at the moment.
Adele: OK fair enough!
Aaron: I mean, yeah. I think the end goal for VAMP is an independent, long term storage place for Australian fossils, where as many of the Australian fossils that are in museum collections around Australia are scanned and available in that space.
Jacob: Yeah, it's really just... Because scanning technology, in terms of palaeontology is relatively recent. Particularly to the point where it's very cheap to do. So heaps of people are doing it. But it's getting that system in place, so this has become a part of palaeontology. At the moment it's still a little wild westy with everyone collecting scans and figuring out a system of where to put it and all that is just, changing how palaeontology is kind of done in the country a little bit.
Adele: I think there's also implications for changing the perception of Australian palaeontology as well. I know with some of my stuff, people hear that I'm an Australian vertebrate palaeontologist who works on mainly dinosaurs and pterosaurs. And they kind of have a bit of an "ew" factor about them, because our fossil record isn't as well known as other places.
But I think having one spot that really showcases the best of the discoveries that we have here, really demonstrates just how important our fossils are in terms of the global scheme of things and really just demonstrates that our modern day ecosystems are absolutely extraordinary. They're unlike anywhere else in the world, and if we peel back the layers and go back through the fossil record, we can also see through time, Australia has always just had these incredibly unique and iconic fossils.
Aaron: Yeah that's an excellent point. The Australian fossils record, whilst we might not have, you know, spectacular early birds like China does or the number of dinosaurs that might be found in some places in America, the representation through different time periods in Australia is pretty extraordinary. The Ediacaran period is named for a site in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, which is the type section for the emergence of complex life on this planet.
And then we've got places like the Emu Bay Shale on Kangaroo Island which is a world class example of a Cambrian Lagerstätte with soft bodied tissue preserved from the Cambrian explosion. Up in Gogo we've got the emergence of complex vertebrate life and the transition from these placoderm dominated faunas through to later times. We do have a range of different representations from the Mesozoic period, in terms of marine reptiles and our pterosaurs and our dinosaurs, both in terms of footprints and in terms of skeletal fossils.
And then, if we come right to the other end of the spectrum, at places like the Naracoorte Caves in South Australia, we've got one of the most complete records of changes in our vertebrate communities in the lead up to the modern day. So over a half a million years of changes in response to glacial, interglacial cycles.
Adele: Yeah, and climate change as well. Seeing how ecosystems have sort of responded as Australia has become more arid over time. It's sort of all connected.
How do we visit and support VAMP? Is there an entry fee? Can I buy a fridge magnet or a stubby cooler to keep my beers cold? And can we join as members?
Aaron: So the whole idea around VAMP is that it's accessible to everyone. There is no cost involved with accessing it. There is a website that is currently linked to Flinders University, so we're in stage 1 of the project at the moment. We've partnered with three museums, it's going to be expanded to include more fossils and a greater number of different institutions.
We want it to be a place that people can go from anywhere in the world to access Australian fossils. We've got the beginnings of our merch empire starting, ready for our launch on the 1st of June. So at the moment we've just got stickers, but we're certainly looking at ways in which we can promote the brand further.
Adele: Seriously consider stubby coolers, particularly if you're thinking of partnering with museums out this way in the outback. I know it's always a popular one. Speaking of the launch, Thursday the 1st of June. Have you got any plans to celebrate the launch of this virtual museum?
Alice: Absolutely. We can't wait to celebrate the launch. We can't wait to finally share it with the world. We have been working on this for a couple of years and there's been a lot of work that's gone into it and we're all really excited about what we have got to offer. And so, we're putting on a party in Adelaide city on the 1st of June and we've got a suite of interesting speakers who are going to come and talk to us about different types of work that they are doing using scanned fossils. And this is reflecting different scanning modalities, different time periods, different research questions and I think it's going to be a really great night to bring people together and show off some of our amazing fossils and just celebrate releasing VAMP out into the wild.
Adele: And like the VAMP site itself, is the event free for people to come along?
Alice: Yeah, absolutely free. We do have limited attendance, so I think it's the first 100 or so tickets you'll get in. But we're opening it up to encourage anyone with an interest in digital palaeontology, digital zoology, evolution to come along and join us to celebrate. And I would encourage anyone who's interested in VAMP to obviously check out our website, but if you happen to be on Twitter, we've got an account on there, the handle is @VAMP_Palaeo and that's paleo spelt with an "A-E-O" so that's @VAMP_Palaeo.
Adele: Awesome! I'll have that linked up in the shownotes as well, but Pals in Palaeo obviously has the palaeo spelt with "A-E-O", so hopefully that'll all be easy to remember.
Thanks so much to Dr Aaron Camens, Dr Alice Clement and Jacob van Zoelen for chatting with me today and for stepping up and creating this fantastic resource. Shout out to the museums who've jumped onboard and for putting their fossils out there, and the many volunteers who've worked on this project behind the scenes.
Don’t forget, if you're in Adelaide on Thursday June 1st, you can be part of the VAMP launch party and hear from more experts on their research.
Otherwise there's tones of 3D models and digital scans to check out on the VAMP website, I'll have that linked up in the shownotes too.
Thanks to Hello Kelly for our tunes and our kickass theme music, if you dig it, you'll love their album Sweet Nostalgia which is up on Spotify, Apple Music and all over the internet. Special thanks to Francy for editing this episode and polishing it up, as well as our producer César Puechmarin who's a constant support and sound board for ideas.
Pals in Palaeo will be back with another episode real soon, but for now, you can lemme know what you thought of this bonus episode: I'm @palsinpalaeo and if you've got 5 minutes to leave a rating or review in your podcast app that would literally make my day and it helps get the word out on super cool projects like VAMP
Until next time, just keep digging