Dinosaurs Encyclopedia & Data Dig Review by Stephen Brusatte
from American Museum of Natural History, New York

At times our cultural fascination with dinosaurs seems a bit absurd. Dinosaur books are probably more common than actual dinosaur fossils, but new ones are published at an ever-escalating rate. Dinosaur-themed documentaries are obligatory for any self-respecting television channel. And, in our digital age, websites that focus on the prehistoric past are as easy to find as online gaming sites or celebrity-themed blogs.

So it is understandable that I was a bit skeptical when first approached by Steve Walsh, an educator and software designer who wanted my opinion of his new digital resource, Dinosaurs Encyclopedia & Data Dig. As a dinosaur researcher with a specialty in carnivorous theropods—the sexiest and most hyperbolized dinosaurs of them all—I am frequently contacted by publishers, producers, and others in the media.

When Steve asked me to critique his new software program, billed as an accessible and comprehensive resource on dinosaurs, I was wary. After all, claims like this are common in the over-saturated world of dinosaur media, and could Dinosaur DataDig really compete with the numerous other products on the market? But in the name of empirical science

I decided to take a look and give this program a chance, and I’m glad that I did.

The easiest one-word description of Dinosaur DataDig is “database,” but this new resource is so much more than a cold and mechanical digital library of facts. From the first click of the mouse it is clear that Walsh’s three decades of experience in education have shaped the program.

Instead of an encyclopedia jumble of dinosaur statistics—the usual scope of similar programs that have tried and failed in the past—Dinosaur DataDig is an educational research and reference tool. It is user friendly, drawing one’s attention with a colorful layout and background “dinosaur soundscapes” that really strike a Mesozoic mood. Hundreds of accurate and vivid illustrations enliven the text. Most importantly, the overall theme is one of user-driven experience. This isn’t a single narrative about dinosaur evolution that tells the user a story, but an adaptive platform that lets the user explore a whole maze of entries and activities at his or own pace. In other words,

this isn’t a textbook
but rather a fieldtrip.

The meat of the program is a set of detailed records of 100 (now 115 with more soon (Ed.)) different dinosaur genus, chosen to represent the panoply of different subgroups, time periods, and geographical areas of dinosaur. Two variations are provided: a summarized record of “key data” for that dinosaur and a much more comprehensive “all data” record that includes facts ranging from the basic (where the dinosaur lived, what it ate, how big it was) to the uber-advanced (how intelligent it was, what its likely metabolism was, what its closest relatives were). Both variations are

extensively cross-linked
to a vast glossary

that includes profiles of famous paleontologists, definitions of important anatomical features, descriptions of major dinosaur subgroups, and even smaller profiles of other dinosaurs that didn’t make the “top 100” (now 115 Ed.) cut for a full profile. On top of this framework format, there is a feature called “DataDig Live,” which like the increasingly-popular Wikipedia and other online wikis allows users to add their own content. This is especially helpful for those users that explore DataDig in conjunction with internet searches on dinosaurs. This way, DataDig enables users to annotate the program with their own notes, interesting weblinks, and questions that pop into their heads as they study dinosaurs in real time.

There is also a great deal of extended Internet content dedicated to each record

including its own website, a huge “Dinosauria Reference” site, a hot search for each genus as well as video, scholar and book, news and blog searches.With this basic explanation out of the way, I can address the three major questions that first popped into my head when contacted by Steve Walsh.

First, is the information in the program accurate? Second, does this program provide information or an educational experience that isn’t already available? Third, what are the goals of this software and does it fulfill them?

 

Steve BrusatteStephen Brusatte is a vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

His primary research focuses broadly on the skeletal anatomy, phylo-genetic relationships, and large-scale evolutionary patterns of the carnivorous dinosaurs, the theropods, particularly the allosauroids. His collaborators have included Paul Sereno, Michael Benton, Mark Norell and Phil Currie.

He is the author/co-author of many scientific papers on the Archosauria and has penned three popular books. He has been involved in describing several new dinosaur species including Raptorex kreigsteini, Carcharodontosaurus iguidensis, Eocarcharia dinops, Kryptops palaios and Alioramus altai.

First, from an accuracy perspective, it looks like
DataDig is pretty much spot on.

This is unsurprising, as dinosaur researcher Scott Hartman has acted as scientific consultant. Although I haven’t had a chance to verify the gritty details of every profile, I did take a close look at the record for a dinosaur that I know very well: Carcharodontosaurus, a giant meat eater that I have studied and described in the scientific literature, and a genus for which I recently named a new species.

Honestly, I have very little to complain about. The classification, size, age, and habitats of Carcharodontosaurus are all accurate, and the list of known specimens is surprisingly detailed, to the extent that

it listed a few specimens that
I didn’t even know about!

Second, does Dinosaur DataDig provide any new information or experience not already available in the
competitive world of dinosaur media? And, more to the point, does this program (which requires a subscription fee) provide information that is not available for free elsewhere? The answer to these questions is yes. There are many comprehensive dinosaur websites that provide free databases of basic information: mostly sizes, ages, geographical occurrences, and photos of dinosaurs. But Dinosaur DataDig, as mentioned above, is not such a program. As a reference and research tool

it boasts smooth design and an easy user interface,
which few websites can claim.

Most importantly, this also separates DataDig from what may be its closest competitors: the overflowing avalanche of dinosaur encyclopedias. DataDig is priced similar to most comprehensive dinosaur books, but plays to a
different set of strengths: interactive and user-driven investigation.

And this is where I segue into the third question: what are the aims of this program and does it achieve those goals? First and foremost this is a learning tool—an alternative to textbooks and encyclopedias shaped by the experience of Walsh, a veteran educator. The content is not dumbed down, but the unpretentious prose and extensive glossary make this program

accessible to a wide range of users:

from preschool dinosaur fanatics to teenagers that may be more serious about studying paleontology and
evolution to seasoned adult dinophiles. Walsh’s perspectives on user-driven education and active learning are well explained on the Dinosaur DataDig website, and I will not repeat them here. But, suffice to say, this program is designed to take a subject that is immensely popular (dinosaurs) and mold it into

a top-notch reference and educational tool. No other software that I know of has succeeded so well at these
goals.

Dinosaur Encyclopedia & Data Dig product description