by Bill Heimbrock

As a member of the Dry Dredgers, I am frequently a point of contact for researchers in other regions looking for specific fossils or sites for their study.  Often, this involves notifying the other Dry Dredgers members of the request in hopes that collectors will come forward with specimens. Too often, the much needed specimens remain sitting on the living room mantle or in a box on the collector's basement floor. These specimens may belong to the same collector who holds high hopes of someday finding that holy grail to be pictured in a professional journal.

Collectors may be hesitant to deposit their prized specimen in a museum collection for fear that it will sit on a shelf for decades unstudied and when it is included in a study and published, the collector who donated it might not have an opportunity to participate or even know of the study. Is there a way to allow these collectors to be active participants in the discovery process of professional research and thus stir up more interest?

On the other side of the spectrum, there are avid amateurs of near professional levels of knowledge who are constantly collaborating with the professional community: co-authoring papers; escorting grad students and classes on field trips;  identifying the best sites to find fossils needed for a specific study; discovering new species; and so on. How can we help these advanced amateurs encourage more of these promising amateurs to get out there and do more for paleontology?

How about a web site that acts as a high-visibility venue for collaboration between professional and amateur paleontologist? Such visibility could act to encourage budding paleontologists. 

Research in Paleontology has often relied partially on volunteers. New volunteers could "telecommute" by contributing to research across the globe.

Such a web site could have message boards for exchange of information. It could have photo galleries for exhibition of collectors' specimens. A fossil identification section could allow the beginning collector a chance to display fossils online and get them identified while the avid collector can get wider exposure of those "mystery fossils" and odd specimens that are so exciting for their rarity. The specimen may exhibit something special such as a feeding behavior or come from somewhere that is not documented to have that genera/species. Many advanced collectors feel they have specimens that deserve more scientific study by the professional community. A web site could serve as a place to display them and get them "out on the table" of scientific inquiry.

I am sure there are many ideas for professional papers that are on the back burner of college professors or museum curators just waiting for some additional evidence to support their ideas. Perhaps a web site could not only offer a place where amateurs show potential research specimens but where professionals can post "specimens wanted" ads for the collector to answer. If nothing else, such a wish list would awaken the amateur collector to look for that special fossil while casually out there in the field, collecting.

Perhaps the web site could display success stories of fossil collectors who have found specimens that have been used and published in professional journals or who have become co-authors of significant articles.

Since the web site would be a central place where amateurs and professionals meet, there could also be a place where pleas for traditional volunteer fossil preparers and the like could be posted. There could be photos of museum projects in progress to build interest among volunteers. 

You might say this is an over zealous dream. Or you might feel that all of these things have been done before. Set aside your skepticism for a moment. Lets just start with a place where amateurs and professionals come together to communicate and then begin sharing in mutually beneficial ventures. What would you like such a Web site to have? What would draw YOU to the site? 

The web site could evolve as we learn more about what is needed. Often, web sites are experiments in function. Ideas become functional web pages. Some functions find purpose and occasionally a function becomes heavily needed. From this process, the world wide web has developed. Paleontology has already benefited greatly from this new electronic medium. There are now online professional journals, such as the Paleontological Society's Palaeontologica Electronica, interactive discussion groups, such as PaleoNet, as well as many other venues for information exchange.  More and more highly respected paleontological organizations such as PRI, MAPS and GSA are bringing up really nice web sites. This serves to demonstrate the huge potential in these new tools for advancing Paleontology. 

Let's all give this a try.  Send in your ideas for Your ideas and comments will be kept confidential and will be seriously considered and very much appreciated.

Thanks for making a worthwhile venture for all!
Bill Heimbrock, Amateur Paleontologist and Xfossils Moderator