Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What's in a name?

This Friday, we'll be publishing an article and an editorial on taxonomy. Its about the proposal to create an official register of animal names--known as Zoobank. Already a few little gems from the article are strewn on the cutting room floor. One of them is an interview with Doug Yanega, an entomologist and museum curator at the University of California, who believes taxonomy has become too cumbersome. He told me, “The man who got me started in my career worked for 30 years on a bee subgenus that was so large and unwieldy that he died before publishing a single revisionary or descriptive work.” An official master list that was published by taxonomists would make the process of describing new species and finding supporting material easier, he adds, and make taxonomy more exciting and easier to pursue. Furthermore, anyone with an interest in a particular group of animals would know exactly who works on it and what the latest information is.

Dr Yanega also had some fascinating comments on the problems he faces, and how some kind of official list of animal names might help:

"As it stands presently, all taxonomists have a fundamental problem in simply keeping track of all the literature, old taxon names, and other miscellania associated with their group of interest. It's not that it's completely unmanageable, but it does have two real impacts: (1) it slows things down and compels one to "scale down" [taxonomic projects can't get too ambitious]... and (2) it creates a barrier to anyone attempting to "break into" a taxonomic group for which there is no surviving expert who has done all the legwork...both problems will be greatly reduced by having a Registry - coming out of the spin-offs that such a Registry will facilitate, such as a digital library of original descriptions and revisionary works, and a database linking taxon names to institutional holdings of those taxa, and digital libraries of images of type specimens.

A single authoritative list is the requisite foundation for any of these more ambitious undertakings - the reality of this conclusion can be seen easily enough, by looking at which taxa in the world already *have* some of these resources developed: they are all cases in which the underlying list of taxa has already been worked out and made public - small, well-defined groups that have a relatively high proportion of taxonomists to taxa (like fish, or birds, etc.).

As an entomological taxonomist, whose general sphere of activity encompasses over 90% of the known taxasphere, and who - even when narrowly focused - can find himself dealing with a single genus that contains more species than the entire Mammalia, the prospect of ever having such a set of resources that I can use is still daunting, though, and cannot even be dreamt of until and unless we have a master list of all their names. For people who work on fish, or birds, or dinosaurs, a Registry might be a fairly trivial addition to the tools at their disposal, but for the rest of us working on all the *other* life forms, it's anything but trivial.

Even worse, I'm not just an entomologist, but a *museum curator*, which means that I can, potentially, have to deal with ANY of the over 1 million named insects, and have to track down any of the over 6 million published names applied to those species. If I had a master list, I would be able to simply check off our holdings against that master list, and could thus fairly readily inform the world at large what, precisely, my collection contains. At present, were I to simply compile a list of taxon names as they appear in our collection at present, at least a quarter would probably be incorrect, and I have no easy way of making the necessary corrections. Extend that to every other museum curator in the world, and we're not talking just simple bookkeeping, but a major tool for networking and data sharing."