Taxonomists discover, describe and classify species. Millions of species remain unknown or unidentifiable, inaccessible to science and society. Charting the species of the world and their unique attributes are essential parts of understanding the history of life. Reliable taxonomic information is necessary for managing sustainable ecosystems, attaining conservation goals, and detecting introductions of pests, vectors and invasive species.
Traditional taxonomic tools and methods have theoretical rigor and rich intellectual content, but are not keeping pace with this growing need for knowledge. How can we increase the pace at which species exploration progresses while maintaining the scientific rigor of traditional taxonomy?
Imagine an advanced institute for species exploration. Scientists and engineers work together to combine the strengths of 250 years of experience doing taxonomy well with emerging cyber-infrastructure capabilities to invent a new generation of tools for 21st century taxonomy. Impediments of the past are identified and overcome. Leading minds from around the world converge to solve theoretical, philosophical, historical, sociological, technological and practical challenges. International museum and herbarium partners coordinate collection growth and development to maximize species representation. International teams of taxon scholars tackle species exploration on a planetary scale. Formal and public education programs inspire and prepare the next generation of species explorers. Imagine… an International Institute for Species Exploration.
The fusion of taxonomy with cyberinfrastructure will transform descriptive taxonomy, creating a modern, efficient science to confront the biodiversity crisis. Cybertaxonomy will enable international teams of taxon experts, museums and herbaria to create and test taxonomic knowledge to assure humanity’s access to reliable information about earth’s species. The IISE and its partners are forging cybertaxonomy as the next logical link in a chain of scholarship unbroken since the time of Linnaeus.
The challenge is immense: discovering and describing millions of unknown species while at the same time continually critically testing 1.8 million already named species. International “knowledge communities,” each focused on a major taxon, will assemble and continually improve and expand all that is known of our world’s species. We are conceiving a taxonomy-specific cyberinfrastructure that will become a worldwide “species observatory” capable of opening access to museum specimens, archived literature, collection data, digital instrumentation and colleagues to vastly expedite descriptive taxonomy. Resultant taxon “knowledge banks” will be the 21st century equivalent of revisions and monographs… the “high throughput” species testing mechanisms of the past. Digital tools, instruments and robots can ease constraints on nearly every phase of taxonomy from collecting and preparing specimens to sharing what is known through user-defined portals such as the Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org). Knowing earth’s species and their myriad characters are fundamental to both evolutionary and environmental biology. The costs of building this new taxonomy are insignificant by comparison to the costs of ignorance as we face the biodiversity crisis.
The IISE will focus on four inter-related areas: (1) Species Inventories and Collection Development; (2) Revisionary Taxonomy and Monography; (3) Cyberinfrastructure; and (4) the History and Philosophy of Taxonomy.
Mission and Goals
The mission of the International Institute for Species Exploration is to inspire, encourage and enable the advancement of taxonomy and exploration of earth’s species. The IISE represents a convergence of cutting-edge computer science and engineering with the goals of descriptive taxonomy. The results will include a transformation of taxonomy, the rapid discovery of earth’s species, and open access to reliable information about them.
Taxonomy is unique among the biological sciences in its historical focus, broadly comparative method and utilization of collections. Taxonomists ask questions about monophyletic groups --- groups that include all species descended from a common ancestral species. Thus, their research is worldwide and unconstrained by geographic, ecological or temporal boundaries associated with experimental biology. Taxonomy is inherently a “big” science demanding access to all relevant specimens, regardless of where or when they were collected. Because collections are distributed in scores of countries, it was impossible in the past to “see” all relevant specimens efficiently. The IISE and its partners seek infrastructure, instruments, and practices necessary to build a virtual distributed “species observatory” for taxonomists. Transforming taxonomy into a planetary-scale science will allow it to answer questions that have remained beyond reach for centuries:
- What are species?
- What species exist? How do they vary?
- What are their characters and the history of their transformations?
- What are their phylogenetic relationships?
- What are their distributions in geographical and ecological space? How have their distributions changed through time?
In addition, there are enormous practical questions to be addressed, such as:
- What are the most informative and predictive classifications based on phylogenetic reconstructions?
- What is the best system of names for scientific communication and information storage and retrieval?
- What are the most effective strategies for planetary scale species inventories?
References discussing taxonomy’s great questions:
Cracraft, J. 2002. The seven great questions of systematic biology an essential foundation for conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity. Ann. Miss. Bot. Gard. 89: 127-144.
Page, L.M., H.L. Bart Jr., R. Beaman, L. Bohs, L.T. Deck, V.A. Funk, D. Lipscomb, M.A. Mares, L.A. Prather, J. Stevenson, Q.D. Wheeler, J.B. Woolley & D.W. Stevenson. 2005. LINNE: Legacy Infrastructure Network for Natural Environments. Champagne, IL: Illinois Natural History Survey.
The IISE and its partners seek to maintain the excellence of traditional descriptive taxonomy while greatly accelerating the rate at which it discovers and describes new species and corroborates (or refutes) existing ones. This consortium is dedicated to a revival of taxonomy as a vibrant, independent science that complements experimental and environmental biology. A re–engineered taxonomy will build a legacy of museum specimens and knowledge of species for future generations. And it will empower taxonomy to answer the most fundamental questions about our world’s biological diversity. Among the many goals of the IISE and its partners are the following.
- Overcome impediments to taxonomy with new tools and practices.
- Coordinate and facilitate an international team approach.
- Accelerate the pace of species discovery and testing.
- Advance theories and concepts.
- Interpret taxonomy’s history and refine its epistemology.
- Revitalize comparative morphology and invent new ways to visualize, analyze and communicate morphological characters.
- Participate in species inventories.
- Organize and equip international “knowledge communities.”
- Educate the next generation of taxonomists and inspire citizen participation.
- Improve access to specimens, instruments, colleagues, data, literature, and other resources required to do taxonomy.
- Integrate diverse sources of data.
- Answer taxonomy’s “big questions.”