fossil rings

Credit: Hughes Lab, UC Riverside

Slab reveals fossilized rings from the ancient seafloor.

Four weeks ago, scientists at the University of California, Riverside launched a contest on the Internet that invited the public to submit explanations for what the origin might be of curious ring-like structures that formed half a billion years ago on a seabed in Wisconsin.

The contest offered a cash prize to the best response from submissions received between Feb. 16, when the contest was announced, and March 11, the end of the contest.

Today, three recipients of the prize were identified through their Reddit ID’s as Dainwaris, PoletoPole and Juapuman, and will each receive $200. While Dainwaris favored the structure being the holdfast of an ancient sponge or coral, the other winners — one of whom is from Kolkata, India — suggested that the rings were egg capsules akin to those seen made by modern moon snails for protecting embryos before hatching.

“Both explanations fit well with several of the key observations made about these structures, said Nigel Hughes, a professor of paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences, who invited the public to solve the ancient riddle.

Approximately 75 comments were received on the Reddit site that featured the contest. Some submissions were also received on other websites. The UC Riverside panel of judges considered all submissions received by the deadline (4 p.m. Pacific Time, March 11).  Submissions posted since the deadline will be considered, but are ineligible for the prize.

“We have analyzed the whole distribution of submissions,” said Eamonn Keogh, a professor of computer science and engineering and a data mining expert.  He provided computer support and advice on the project. “Entries came in from North America, Europe and Asia.  We didn’t receive as many entries from China as we thought we would, perhaps due to YouTube restrictions there.”

Besides Hughes and Keogh, the panel of judges included UC Riverside graduate student Matthew Knauss, alumna Ashlee Tyler, and the two amateur paleontologists, Gerald Gunderson and Ronald Meyer, who discovered the rings nearly three decades ago.

“Some entries are detailed, going point to point,” Hughes said.  “Others are just one line long. While they span a range of options that have been on our minds, many provide specific links to information about possible mechanisms we would not have thought about.”

It was Keogh who suggested to Hughes of using crowdsourcing to include public participation.

“The number of submissions we received is a very manageable number,” Hughes said. “This sort of research project lends itself particularly well to crowdsourcing.  People have wondered about the Wisconsin rings since they were discovered, and one can consider a variety of possibilities for their origin.  So it struck as an intriguing problem, one in which we probably won’t necessarily be able to find a definitive answer but describe a range of possibilities.  Quite possibly, crowdsourcing has value also in other paleontology research.”

Hughes mentioned that although the majority of people who visited the contest website were interested in natural history, some submitted explanations provided analogies of how the rings might have been made rather than identifying the specific maker.

“This is because several of the proposed ring-makers had not evolved at the time the rings for formed,” he said. “Neither of our winners’ proposed ring-makers is actually likely to have made the rings we see, but they provide great analogs of how they might have formed.  Historical science is about observing natural processes happening today and thinking about how similar natural processes might fit observations about events in the past.”

Hughes and Keogh are planning to write a scientific description of the fossil and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal.  The research paper will likely have a section that describes the crowdsourcing venture undertaken, list the breadth of explanations received and discuss what was learned from the exercise.

“We consider it to have been a success,” Keogh said.  “We had no idea if this would generate lots of interest or little interest.  We believe it has met the objective of giving us far more possible explanations than we had before.”

Hughes, too, is pleased the contest generated interest from the public on the Internet.

“To submit a serious entry, as many have been, requires a lot of work and some familiarity with paleontology — so it can be quite demanding,” he said.  “We greatly appreciate the efforts of everyone who participated.”