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Researchers create bone database

Posted: August 4, 2013 - 11:06pm

FAIRBANKS — Fitting that it should end in Fairbanks, since that’s where it all began for Herb Maschner.

For the past five years, he and a team of researchers have been on a mission to create an online database of bones from every known arctic bird, mammal and fish.

Maschner grew up in Fairbanks. He was a member of West Valley High School’s first graduating class in 1977. He returned later to earn his master’s degree from University of Alaska Fairbanks, and he is returning once more to the UA Museum of the North to gather the last bit of information for the database.

Known as the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project, or VZAP, the database pulls together data from universities and museums around the world. The Burke Museum, Smithsonian Institution and Canadian Museum of Civilization have partnered with Maschner to offer their considerable collections.

The database can be seen online through Idaho State University, where Maschner teaches and acts as the director for the Idaho Museum of Natural History. After the addition of samples from the UA Museum, VZAP will bring together detailed images of nearly every fish, bird and mammal species in the North American arctic and sub-arctic regions.

In some ways, Maschner said, the images are better than having the actual bone — with the 3-D models, viewers can rotate, take cross sections and perform other tasks. The images are so detailed, in fact, that professors and researchers around the world will be able compare their own samples with those available online through VZAP.

The images are accurate to one thousandth of a millimeter, Maschner said.

“They’re higher resolution than most people’s computers can even display them,” he said.

The idea for VZAP came to Maschner years ago during a research project in the Aleutian Islands. He and other researchers were using animal bones to reconstruct a history of the North Pacific.

“We realized very early on there wasn’t a comparative collection anywhere in the world that was good enough to ID all of these bones,” Maschner said. “It would cost hundreds of thousands (of dollars) to travel to all the sites in the world to do so.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Maschner and his team of 3-D scanner technicians were able to make all the arctic collections accessible to nearly anyone with an Internet connection.

The six technicians arrived in Fairbanks earlier this week to begin analyzing specimens at the Museum of the North. Maschner’s own homecoming will take place later this week.

The team is nearing the end of the project, Maschner said, and has gathered most of the necessary species, but several animals proved harder to find than others. So, he said, “We are using the last of this project’s funds to come up to Fairbanks and scan like crazy for three weeks.”

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