“The first part of knowledge is getting the names right.” Chinese proverb quoted in Evolution of Insects, Grimaldi and Engel, 2005.
Species names are the primary entrance for accessing biological knowledge about organisms. However, the tangled bank of nomenclature created by 250 years of diverse communities of taxonomic specialists working largely in isolation challenges those seeking knowledge. It can be difficult to know what is already known. Identifying even well-studied organisms in backyards, such as North American ants for example, may require graduate-level training. As taxonomic knowledge moves increasingly onto the web, tools that enable non-specialists and specialists alike to access biological knowledge of organisms are beginning to be developed. In my view, the solution will be a combination of information science tools enabling access to biological literature together with a universal library of standardized genetic sequences, ie DNA barcodes, and simple technologies for barcode sequencing.
An exciting development in taxonomic information science is uBio (Universal Biological Indexer and Organizer) www.ubio.org, “an initiative within the science library community to join international efforts to create and utilize a comprehensive and collaborative catalog of known names of all living (and once-living) organisms. The Taxonomic Name Server (10,699,999 NameBank records so far) catalogs names and classifications to enable tools that can help users find information on living things using any of the names that may be related to an organism.”
The uBio site provides a sophisticated and enjoyable illustrated introduction (excerpt at right) to the variety of challenges in retrieving information using organism names. Another feature is Nomenclator Zoologicus, a searchable list of the names of genera and subgenera in zoology from the tenth edition of Linnaeus 1758 to the end of 2004, developed with Zoological Society of London. uBio is helping organize and index Encyclopedia of Life (“a web page for every species”) and Biodiversity Heritage Library (1.124 million pages digitized and on the web so far).
I close with an example from birds. Some taxonomic confusion reflects the struggle to integrate older works that use outdated taxon names or species limits with modern knowledge. Other discordances reflect lack of consensus among current experts. Given the intensity of scientific study and public interest in birds, it is surprising there is no single authoritative world checklist, especially since most of the differences at the species level reflect minor disagreements about generic assignment, a few cases of splitting/lumping, or differences in spelling. As one step until there is an expert consensus checklist, for those interested in birds, we have prepared an “ABBI Name Lookup” (Excel, 8 MB) file for harmonizing specimen lists that recognizes 2,462 synonyms, alternate and misspellings, and extinct species.
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