ATBI "Self-Destructs" and what we do

John (Jack) Longino longinoj at ELWHA.EVERGREEN.EDU
Tue May 20 11:29:02 CDT 1997

Rob Colwell and I have been running an arthropod inventory project in
Costa Rica ( and I find
myself thinking about morphospecies issues all the time. I think an
important distinction is between what I call "community characterization"
and "strict inventory." A lot of ecologists want community
characterization: species richness, relative abundance, etc. They don't
need to know the names. A good example of this is Ian Oliver's work. They
just need variables that predict well the community parameters they seek.
If a technician's rough-sorted morphospecies correlate somewhat with a
taxonomist's sorted species, good enough. In contrast, strict inventory
is when you want the names. You want a complete inventory. You want them
for chemical prospecting, or for monitoring species turnover over time,
or for behavioral or physiological studies, where replication with the
same species might be important.

Say we want strict inventory. We still have a problem. For some species,
it's easy. The group has been revised at a global level, we identify it,
point the users to the relevant taxonomic literature. But for many
lineages, at the species level we have a VERY COMPLICATED situation out
there, a whirlwind of genes, morphology, history, local selection,
parapatry, hybrid zones, sympatry, allopatry, introgression,
introduction, etc. etc. At a local site we have well-defined species, and
we can sort them into half a dozen species or so. But the differences are
subtle; it takes quite a bit of work and a good specimen base to discover
those differences. Often they are linked to ecological differences in the
field, giving us greater confidence in their distinctness. But we know
that they are part of a complex that covers a continent or two, and the
differences we see among the six species at one site drift around when we
move over a few valleys or upslope. We know it would take a lifetime to
work out the taxonomy of this group over its entire range. In a taxon
with a local diversity of 400 species (my example being ants in a few
hectares of Costa Rica) there are dozens of such groups.

I like O'Hara's cartography metaphor. Taxonomy is a map of diversity. A
local fauna is like a city center map that shows individual buildings. A
higher-level revisionary taxonomy is like a state road map. What we
taxonomists aspire to is a state map that shows all the houses. This will
take a long time, but meanwhile, there may be important places, the
taxonomic equivalent of city centers, that need a map, and they shouldn't
have to wait for the state map to be finished.

So what do we do? What I have brashly started doing is using the Web as a
place for quick and dirty local faunas. It is cheap, fast, and the
relatively small audience that might use it can be told where to find it.
It is relatively easy to capture taxonomic expertise this way. The
fundamental unit (a Janzenian, ATBI idea) is a species page that has a
few grabbed images, some annotations about what the taxonomist knows.
These can have morphospecies code names, and also various provisos
regarding the status of that name: is it something you really think is a
new species, but aren't ready to describe or publish yet, or is it
something that might have a published name, because it is in an unrevised
group with 500 available names floating out there, but it is not a group
you are revising and you have no intention of checking all those types.
Using this approach, it becomes essential that Web publication not be
viewed as official taxonomic publication. The last thing one wants is to
burden taxonomists with an avalanche of available names.

Another issue is that for quality global revisions, you need a good
specimen base, with good geographic coverage, and you can't get out there
and get them all yourself. I think these Web-accessible local faunas will
inspire people in other areas to do the same thing, much like popular
bird guides inspire people to go out and look for birds. If figuring out
local species can become a popular sport, it might make more material
available. It might also inspire more public support for taxonomy. Many
people get a visceral pleasure when they can match up something they see
with something someone else has seen. Many fewer people can get the same
pleasure from a phylogeny.

Enough for now. Back to Pheidole JTL-063 (cf. obscurior).

John T. (Jack) Longino      longinoj at
Lab I
The Evergreen State College
Olympia WA 98505 USA

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