Maintaining databases

Thu Nov 30 15:01:51 CST 1995

In the discussion of database maintenance, Gary Rosenberg and Doug
Yanega have commented on protocols for speeding up the process of
identifying or re-identifying specimens in a database, assuming that
records already exist in the database for those specimens.

Here's how we deal with this problem for the Arthropods of La Selva
(ALAS) inventory in Costa Rica. A de novo inventory of a poorly-
known biota requires constant updating of more and more accurate
determinations, as specimens are sorted to finer and finer
taxonomic levels and finally, one hopes, identified to species. We
use the Biota biodiversity database management program to do this ,
but the protocol could be implemented in other ways (respond
directly to me if you want details about Biota):

(1) Specimens are individually barcoded (pins, slides, vials) as they
are prepared. (A not-required but efficient shortcut is to use
sequential barcodes for all specimens from a single collecting-
event--e.g. a single Malaise trap; then use Biota's first number/last
number Series entry screen to create all the specimen records
automatically and relate them to the record for the collection-
event--collector(s), date, place, etc.)

(2) Once each specimen has a barcode and a record in the database
(linked to a collecting-event record), specimens from all collecting
events pooled (or the specimens from 200 years of collecting in a
museum) can then be sorted to any level commensurate with the
expertise of the sorter (from rough-sorts to family by
parataxonomists to species level sorts by specialists)--I mean the
physical specimens are sorted, in this step.

(3) Now suppose the visiting authority has lined up 100 specimens of
Species 1, 50 of Species 2, and 20 of Species 3, etc. The specimens
in each species category may or may not currently share any
attributes in the database. You or an assistant simply sets up the
computer with the determination for Species 1 (in Biota, you would
fill in Species--or a temporary taxon name, see next; Determined By;
and Date Determined in the Identify Specimen Series screen), then
scan in the barcodes for all individuals or Species 1. (With Biota,
this is a hands-off procedure; you set the barcode scanner to enter a
carriage return character at the end of each barcode, which launches
a script to add the Specimen record to a record set.) How long does
it take? With practice, 3-6 seconds per specimen (slides are faster
than vials or pinned material). So, 5-10 minutes per hundred
specimens, with zero specimen code entry errors.

(4) When done with the scanning for that species, the determination
and associated info is added to the Specimen record for each species
in the Record Set (at a button-click of the mouse, with Biota). The
previous determination for these specimens should be automatically
archived. In Biota, if the Determination History option is turned on,
Biota handles this task by creating a Det History record for each
specimen re-identified, automatically recording the previous det and
determiner, who entered the change, when, and where (Specimen
record, related Species record, or related Genus record); the new
det, determiner, and det date are entered in the Specimen record.
Step 4 takes one button click and a few seconds of computational
time for several hundred records.

(5) A note on "Temporary Taxa": Suppose that Thayer and Newton
identified several thousand staphylinid beetle specimens as
subfamily Aleocharinae, but not to genus or species. How do you
capture this useful information in a relational database (using the
standard Linnean hierarchy) that needs a Species record and a Genus
record to link Specimen records to Subfamily records? In the ALAS
project, we solve this problem by creating Temporary Taxa records
of the form: Species "(Aleocharinae)" in the Genus "(Aleocharinae)",
in the subfamily "Aleocharinae", using parenthesis (no quotes) to
indicate that the name is actually of a higher category and the
identification incomplete. Thus all aleocharine staphylinid specimen
records can be found by a top-down search on Subfamily
Aleocharinae, whether the specimens have been determined to
species, genus, or just subfamily. (Biota creates Temporary Taxa
automatically, if requested: if you create an Order record
Coleoptera, then Family, Genus, Species records for "(Coleoptera)"
are ready and waiting for all those obscure beetles you can't identify
to even to family.)

In short, with barcodes (or magic bullet ID tags of the future, as
long as they can communicate as surrogate keyboard input, as a
barcode reader does), updating determinations in existing specimen
records can be made utterly simple and quite acceptably fast: no
piece of information need be entered more than once, and only the
new determination need be entered by hand (or that, too, with
barcodes; in the ALAS collection, we use species barcodes, under the
unit tray species labels). Administrative/curational tasks such as
loans and returns are greatly simplified as well. The argument that
barcodesare clumsy to read is simply not borne out by our experience.
Beginners have a rough time--but only for an hour or so. Like any
repetitive manual task requiring dexterity and coordinaton, barcode
entry is easier some people than others, and virtuosos do exist, but
anyone can learn.

Rob Colwell
Robert K. Colwell
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of Connecticut, U-42
Storrs, CT 06269-3042
E-mail colwell at
***PLEASE NOTE THE NEW AREA CODE for northern. CT: 860***
Voice (860) 486-4395
Fax (860) 486-3790

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