ITIS

Doug Yanega dyanega at MONO.ICB.UFMG.BR
Thu Sep 3 11:45:16 CDT 1998


Mary Barkworth wrote:

>My impression, and I would love to hear that I am wrong, is that an
>elaborate system will be set up and lots of data entered from existing
>sources using the basionym as the sole guide to the meaning of a name and
>automatic conversion to what some one person (or perhaps a small group or
>one paid  employee and taxonomists throughout the country asked to review
>the proposed synonymy and provide information free of charge) decides is
>the best for now.  With no formal mechanism for getting a change made.

The web site that Peter Rauch cited (http://www.itis.usda.gov/itis/) should
give you some idea of what's happening; taxonomy is overseen by a Taxonomic
Work Group of 10 people (only a few of whom I recognize - I know Allison is
on Taxacom, at least, maybe she can fill us in on the background of the TWG
if it is relevant), and these folks evidently decide on the standards,
while soliciting help from outside taxonomic experts. It is not stated
whether these outside "ITIS Stewards" are getting support money, or whether
their services will be retained (to keep things updated) once a list has
been standardized and adopted. Maybe Margaret Thayer can shed some light on
what role exactly the ITIS stewards have. If the taxonomists' role is as a
free, disposable resource, rather than as continuing participants, I'd be
concerned about the long-term prospects. What kind of long-term money has
the gov't committed to this, anyway?  (Whatever happened to the NBS??)
        From my own perspective, given that arthropods (esp. insects)
represent the bulk of extant species, it is surprising that there appears
to be nothing being done (unless I missed something) with Arachnida,
Hymenoptera, or Lepidoptera - all of which are large and important groups,
especially to agriculture. The present list, in fact, only covers orders
with significant numbers of aquatic taxa (Ephemeroptera, Odonata,
Plecoptera, Trichoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, and Coleoptera), and this same
pattern is evident in which other invertebrate groups are covered; clearly
the folks in charge figure that gov't agencies have a greater need for
names of *aquatic* invertebrates than any other type, given how many gov't
projects use them as bioindicators. So why don't they just come out and
*say* that aquatic taxa are ITIS' top priority? It is also curious that
they feel a need to do this order-by-order, instead of making use of
broader resources such as Nomina Insecta Nearctica (as John Grehan pointed
out).
        Along these same lines, I notice that the only three databases
cited as being incorporated into ITIS are evidently US government databases
(from the US Geo Survey, NODC, and USDA) - is there to be no effort to tap
into electronic cataloguing efforts *outside* the US gov't?? This would
seem to virtually guarantee the much-dreaded "reinventing the wheel"
phenomenon. I guess what I'd like to hear is that the folks on the ITIS
committees have made a thorough background study and compiled a list of all
extant cataloguing efforts, made contact with those responsible for these
resources so ITIS can incorporate them with relative ease, and prioritized
their remaining efforts according to *gaps* in what is available - I don't
get that impression, but I'd be happy to learn otherwise. Jim Beach asked:

>How can we reasonably expect them and other species databases
>which are regional or otherwise special purpose, to build the ultimate
>system to unambiguously identify every concept and map all of the available
>names for those taxa in a globally  exhaustive and precise way?  In the
>absence of significant systematics community informatics infrastructure
>(i.e. implementations) to deal with this particular problem, we (in the
>U.S. at least) should celebrate their bravery and support ITIS as a
>nucleating process which, with enough broad support, could spawn a more
>integrative and global taxonomic infrastructure.

For one, I've always thought the Tree Of Life project exemplified the
nucleus of exactly the sort of "ultimate system" you describe, though it
suffers terribly from lack of contribution since it relies on charity (and
I can only wonder why, if there is a serious desire to generate a single
standard taxonomy, the gov't didn't simply throw its support behind this
project, to help it get developed to its potential - but that's another
matter). The question I have is just how "integrative" is ITIS going to be
if it is not tapping into all the relevant resources, and if it has strong
taxon- and region-specific priorities?

My two bits,

Doug Yanega    Depto. de Biologia Geral, Instituto de Ciencias Biologicas,
Univ. Fed. de Minas Gerais, Cx.P. 486, 30.161-970 Belo Horizonte, MG   BRAZIL
phone: 031-449-2579, fax: 031-499-2567  (from U.S., prefix 011-55)
                  http://www.icb.ufmg.br/~dyanega/
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82




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