Researcher John Alroy of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis won the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for Scientific Reviewing.
Alroy developed the Paleobiology Database, which, according to a press release published by the National Academy of Science, has revolutionized the synthesis of paleobiological data. According to Alroy, the Paleobiology Database — or the PaleoDB as it is called by those in the field — is an online community of professional paleobiologists who can type in their data for comparison and research.
Alroy said the user format of the database is similar to that of collaborative reference sites like Wikipedia.
“Like Wikipedia, it can be used for reference and anyone can integrate information into it,” Alroy said. “It’s a relational database. Say you want to know the oldest and youngest family of a particular dinosaur, you’d find all the names and sift through the ages and from there you would be able to produce a report of that dinosaur’s timeline.”
Alroy said the common goal of the project was to create an improved diversity curve in the field of paleobiology.
“If you wanted to find out where all tyrannosaurus fossils have been dug up around the world, the database can
pull out all the coordinates and draw a map of where those fossils were found,” Alroy said.
According to Alroy, he was nominated for the award by Michael Foote, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago.
“The database currently has distributional, nitty-gritty stuff, abilities,” Alroy said. “It allows researchers to dig deeper into the information. People input their data into the public database, and it moves along with its own inertia.”
Shanan Peters, assistant professor in sedimentary geology and paleobiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Paleobiology Database is only one of Alroy’s many contributions to paleobiology.
“I’m very proud of my work on a large-scale macrostratigraphy database, but it is small peanuts in comparison to the body of work that John has accomplished with the PaleoDB,” Peters said.
Peters said that with Alroy’s commitment, paleobiological data is now a part of a global online interface.
“Although this database is very much a community effort, it has largely been John’s hard work and dedication to the project that has kept it moving forward,” Peters said. “Simply stated, the Paleobiology Database is the critical resource for testing next-generation hypotheses in macroevolution and evolutionary paleoecology.”
Peters said Alroy’s research is as impressive as it gets in the field of paleobiology.
“Outside of the Paleobiology Database, I would characterize John as one of the sharpest analytical and quantitative minds in the field, as almost all of his published papers clearly convey,” Peters said. “He has tackled a broad range of questions, from the Phanerozoic biodiversity dynamics of marine invertebrates to Pleistocene megafaunal extinction patterns among land mammals.”
The idea of the extensive database stems back to Alroy’s earlier research involving the formation of a North American plants and animal fossils database.
“Realizing there was no way for one person to collect all the information regarding fossils, I called together a group of about a dozen researchers to make a collective database,” Alroy said.
Alroy and his family plan to attend the award ceremony this April in Washington, D.C. Alroy will then move to Australia to continue research in paleobiology at Macquarie University.