I am an invertebrate scientist publishing taxonomic and systematic studies predominantly on spiders. I am also an environmental practitioner conducting invertebrate surveys in Western Australia trying to identify spiders from often poorly sampled, remote regions.
I am therefore as much a taxonomist as I am an end-user. I am familiar with the taxonomic literature of described species in my area of expertise (and some other invertebrate groups such as millipedes and ants) and have little problems to identify species that had a very recent taxonomic treatment and for which biodiversity and distribution data is readily available (i.e. through identifies specimens in collections published in the Atlas of Living Australia).
What I need, as expert end-user, is a system that helps me identify a species that is not properly illustrated (i.e. historically named, but with poor original description) and those that are undescribed.
As end-user trying to protect rare species, I don’t need a Linnaean name for this, but I need to know if a species is potentially rare or widespread, which determines if it is subject to an environmental assessment or not. In Western Australia, a species does not have to be named scientifically to be protected by the Wildlife Conservation Act.
Imagine, I could find images of all undescribed and poorly described species online, with diagnostic images, i.e. all pedipalps of male spiders in ventral view for a family or genus side-by-side? Apply the ‘retrolateral’ filter, and then I get them all in a different view for identification. Or images of heads of undescribed ants of a genus side by side? Impossible by 2028? Of course not!
Check out www.antweb.org and you can find thousands of images of ants (described and undescribed, the latter with morphocodes), can filter by bioregion, taxonomy and morphological view. Or closer to home, check out the Barrow Island QIM (http://www.padil.gov.au/barrow-island/search?queryType=all) funded by Chevron Australia as part of its biosecurity efforts for its Gorgon Project, that illustrates in access of 2,000 terrestrial invertebrate species, many with morphospecies codes. I have used this resource excessively for identifications of spiders and ants in the nearby Pilbara. Imagine a Barrow Island QIM for the whole of Australia, just better!
This of course will not work for all taxa, some cannot be easily identified by images alone, but for many it will work, as long as species-specific images are being presented (here the Barrow Island QIM falls short, at least for spiders).
There are three main elements that need to be developed for this:
- The database structure and gallery type web-design with appropriate filters for images that are meta-tagged for these filters.
- An Australia-wide pseudotaxonomic/morphospecies framework for undescribed species with unique species identifiers. This can be modelled on the Linnaean system, i.e. it will require ‘morphotypes’ to fix a morphospecies.
- Expert curators for specific groups, possibly at state-level, that oversea the addition of new species.
Addition of new species will likely be managed at the state level, so let’s think this through for WA and spiders. There are approximately 900 described species in the state, our best estimates of the total number of species is probably three times as much (round it up to 3,000). For arguments sake, let’s assume that about half of the described species have been recently revised and can be identified based on published revisions. That leaves us with ca. 2,500 to be illustrated online for identification (however, no reason to not also include described species by using the published images, copyrights permitting). Many of these will occur in the neighbouring states or even Australia-wide (Australia-wide, about 3,800 spider species are described of an estimated 10,000+ species).
This number for WA spiders is just about as much as the Barrow Island Quim has been done since 2004! Not only is it possible, it has actually been done.
Let’s now assume, like Antweb, an online image catalog is being contributed to by the whole scientific community, overseen by expert curators to guarantee taxonomic consistency of the system? For example, if I as environmental consultant with expertise identification skill find a species and cannot find it online, I submit standard images and the specimen to the ‘curator’ who simply has to upload the images, establish a morphotype and add distribution data to the database (maybe by IBRA region?). In a well-established online Contents Management System (CMS) this may take all put 15 min per species. It’s almost like the Encyclopedia of Life for undescribed species. Once it is set up with a core number of species for each taxon, I would hopefully again momentum. Imagine then, that museum curators use the system to identify new accessions, database these and the respective distribution data would be available on the ALA (which by then allows listing of the established morphotypes).
We would move from species description to species registration, which, of course, would ultimately enormously facilitate future taxonomic revisions.
Of course there will be errors in the system, but a species is only a hypothesis after all
We won’t be able to scientifically describe all invertebrate species by 2028, but we can document a large proportion of these within 10 years!