Traditionally, experts would wrestle with this puzzle based on their previous experience and comparison with more complete skeletons, but researchers investigated whether there is another way?
For the new study, published in the latest issue of the journal Palaeontology, David Jones and Mark Purnell, from the University of Leicester, teamed-up with Peter von Bitter from the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada, to bring sophisticated statistical techniques to bear on solving this skeletal jigsaw. They used material from a 425 million year old rock deposit in Ontario, Canada which, unlike almost all other deposits in the world, preserves both scattered teeth and complete skeletons of conodonts. This material allowed them to compare the success rate of experts in placing the teeth in the correct positions within the skeleton, with the success rate of computer-based methods.
So how do the experts stack up against the machines? "Pretty well" says Jones. "This is reassuring for palaeontologists! but the computer-based approach did at least as well and was also consistent; experts disagreed amongst themselves, and less experienced palaeontologists, not surprisingly, made more mistakes.
"The statistical techniques therefore allow us to test and verify the conclusions drawn by palaeontologists, greatly increasing the confidence with which we can reconstruct the skeletons of extinct vertebrates. But it's not time to retire the experts; at least not yet..." say the researchers.
|Contact: Mark Purnell|
University of Leicester