If humans can't, at least machines talk to each other
The Taxonomic Impediment, one of the main reasons why biodiversity has almost vanished from the palate of environmental issues, really has two main ingredients: We do not know most of the species, nor can we find and identify most of those known to science, and measuring their abundance is extremely complicated and thus expensive. The latter shall not be discussed here, but the former, the charting and identification of species.
The better known groups, such as the feathery, furry, scaly and flowering species tools are out there to know what species are known, and increasingly how to identify them, and to know, where they live. I am aware, that this is an optimistic view though.
But these groups are far from representing the bulk of the ca 1.5 to 1.8M species, such as ants, a single family of insects representing 12,000 species
With the recent publication of “Bolton’s Catalogue of Ants of the World: 1758-2005
” (CD-Rom, Harvard University Press, USD45), the authors claim that “There is no longer an excuse for nomenclatural mistakes, since all past decisions are recorded here.”. The authors must indeed be convinced about their infallibility by publishing a CD-Rom based on a Filemaker extension which does not allow entering, correcting or even exporting any data from there CD-Rom.
points out some source of errors in his review of this database, he simply ignores that there is a vibrant Web-based ant systematics community
out there, and in fact that ant names have been for more than four years now part of the body of names feeding into global efforts to build finally a list of the world’s species (eg. Species2000
, etc.), and it is widely used. There are not only names out there, but, unlike the citations on Bolton CD-Rom, all the citations are linked to a digital library including over 4,100 publications (excluding such copyrighted works as Wilson’s Pheidole of the World, printed like the CD at Harvard University Press), a feature used by the authors of the new CD-Rom to extract information from legacy publications.
But there is no acknowledgment on the CD-Rom, which might not have been created in such as short time had the publications to be searched in the library, nor has there been a feedback on errors found, or missing publications. This even though a Creative Commons licence
states, that this work can be used under the following conditions: Attribution, non-commerical, and share alike.antbase.org
is based on Bolton’s first catalogue, published in 1995. But in antbase, every taxon name has an acknowledgment of the original source. Bolton and Harvard University Press did explicitly not wanted to make the catalogue of the ants of the world open access, a policy still pursued with the publication of a USD45 expensive stand alone application.
Does Shattuck’s view of the closed (CD-Rom containable) world really hold? Even if there are errors and omissions in antbase, we can now easily correct them because of this CD-Rom. At the same time we are now continually adding new names (see eg for 2006
), or combination of names we discover whilst making legacy publications machine readable, and thus anybody can get all the data from the Web.
What about all those other ant communities on the web, nicely summarized by Verhaagh and Klingenberg?
What about institutions like GenBank
using as one of there references the antbase/Hymenoptera Name Server names to link gene sequences to names? What about antweb.org
and others using antbase.org
as their taxonomic reference? What about ants helping to shape the discussion
of the future of taxonomy on the web?
The value off a catalogue is effectively to a much wider audience (see the red dots on the map) then to the specific taxonomists themselves. Most of the latter are from the developing world, and are not able to pay for it, even though most of the data originates is from their countries (see copyright = biopiracy
The good emerging property of the Web is that we no longer have to depend on this secretive and authoritative individuals and groups who want to control and sell their knowledge. Luckliy for most of us, machines do not care about self declared authorities; they just ignore them, because they are not found.