[Taxacom] eol in NYT

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Fri Sep 7 03:15:43 CDT 2007

> Excuse me? How does compiling information about known species 
> make it more likely that unknown biodiversity gets 
> discovered? How does sitting in an office playing with 
> bioinformatics tell you anything about life you haven't found 
> yet, out there in nature? How exactly does funding for EOL 
> translate into funding for fieldwork?

I don't know what Ed Wilson's reasons were for saying what he said, but I'll
give you my own reasons why I think something like EoL can hep accelerate
the naming of new species:

1) In many cases, the bottleneck in naming species is not finding them in
nature, but sorting through unidentified material already in collections.  I
can think of myriad ways that a cohesive, well-organized, and comprehensive
portal to a near-complete global repository of images, specimen records,
diagnosis, original descriptions, and online keys can help with this
process.  Even with my own work with a relatively well-known group (reef
fishes), it still takes more time (ultimately) to figure which ones are new,
than it takes to actually describe the known new ones. And even besides raw
taxonomy, just the process of curating collections and allowing more people
with less taxonomic expertise to more accurately identify organisms in
collections will help accelerate the process.

2) Enabling non-specialists to do quality taxonomic work.  I think most
would agree that another major bottleneck in global taxonomy is the low (and
decreasing) number of taxonomists -- particularly as experts in certain
groups.  I sincerely believe that tools emerging from the EoL (or simialrly
ambitious) initiative can help mobilize more biologists to do taxonomic work
of better quality that would otherwise be possible. And, it could allow
specialists on one group to have confidence in also identifying and
describing species in another group.

And perhaps most significantly:

> More importantly, how would EOL shift survey and sampling 
> priorities to those places where biodiversity is disappearing fastest?

3) It can allow taxonomists to know much more comprehensively the current
distribution patterns of known and unidentified material, much more
dynamically than has ever been possible before.

I've argued these, and other points before -- and most of them boil down to
streamlining the taxonomic process.  I'll give just one "for example".  We
did a collecting expedition to Fiji in 2002, and it took us weeks of actual
working time just to organize all the collecting data, track down missing
bits, retroactively calculate Georeference coordinates, identify specimens,
cross-link to images (which were shot with film and later scanned), and so
on.  On our last two expeditions, I took with me some software I've been
putting together that allows me to relatively easily organize all these
details in real time, each day, during the expedition itself. And, I had
access to scanned identification guides and images that allowed us to more
quickly and accurately identify species in the field, and recalibrate our
efforts on subsequent colelcting days. Once back home, we processed one of
those collections in two hours, and the other in 90 minutes.  Now, I'm not
saying that this software tool is something that EoL has developed, or even
would have developed -- but more generally is does underscore how "playing
with bioinformatics" can help reclaim a lot of my time, which I can then
invest in concentrating more on activities that help document new

> Nice promotional piece, but it doesn't help the worldwide 
> biodiversity salvage effort, still in its infancy. 

Actually, there is one key passage in his article that I think touched on
something that I've long believed WILL help the worldwide biodiversity
salavage effort, namely in getting more people to appreciate its value:

"What will we and future generations lose if a large part of the living
environment continues to disappear? Huge potential stores of scientific
information will never exist."

This is my own personal #1 soapbox preach for convincing the non-biologist
world why biodiversity matters.  I've detailed my "biodiversity library"
argument here and elsewhere, so I won't repeat it now; but in short, the
REAL value of biodiversity - to most people and to future generations -- is
information. Indeed, the global genome is probably the largest (and most
practically important) database that will ever exist on this planet.  We
just need to learn a bit more about how to read and interpret it.

And maybe a project like EoL can help lead us down that path.

Gimme an "E"!  Gimme an "o"!  Gimme an "L"!  What's that spell?....


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