Many ways forward: towards a Biota of Canada

In my last post I looked back at the history of an idea — documenting the biota of Canada. If we are going to embark on such an undertaking, a logical first step is to figure out how to get there, and what it will look like when we do. It’s probably good to get a couple of fairly important points out of the way first:

Fairly Important Point #1: we can’t make a catalog of all Canadian species yet, and we won’t be able to for a long time.

Fairly Important Point #2: fairly important point #1 does not mean we shouldn’t just start in and DO the thing. There are many things we know already, and just have to organize. There are many things we don’t yet know and have yet to discover. We can do the first without waiting for the second, so a logical first step is to compile the information we already have.

Names are the key to organizing information. Names of species are the labels on the filing system of life. Names are a portal to all other information about species, and are the central hub through which all information flows. So, they are the logical starting point for a project like this. There are, however, a few challenges in using names as the basis for the filing system. Specialists organize and communicate knowledge about species by using scientific names (those two-word, Latin-looking epithets that make some people roll their eyes when we ask them to learn a few). The great advantage of scientific names is that they are, ideally, universal and unambiguous. Contrast this with common names, which can vary from language to language and region to region. But the reality is that people do use common names to identify and communicate information about species (think about birds or butterflies, which have widely-known and widely accepted common names), so the system has to accommodate them. Note also that scientific names aren’t always as clear and unambiguous as we would like, because of synonyms and changes in the combinations of names over time (taxonomy is a dynamic and evolving science!). This is why, along with compiling information about species, we must continue to do the good fundamental taxonomic work to resolve remaining disagreements and confusion about scientific names.

Where do the data come from? Names are the key to organizing information, but that information comes from a range of sources: specimens in collections (the most reliable, because they can be verified, but also time-consuming and expensive to extract); records in literature (an enormous and valuable resource, which may or may not always be accurate, and not always supported by specimens); and observations (think: Christmas Bird Counts; butterfly days; citizen science initiatives. But observations aren’t always supported by specimens). All three provide useful and valuable data, just in different packages, and with different levels of verifiability.

What will it look like? Just as many different sources of information could go into a Biota of Canada, many different kinds of information can come out the other end. Different users want or need different things and, ideally, as many user groups as possible should be accommodated.

Canada and its Insect Fauna (Danks, 1981)

Canada and its Insect Fauna (Danks, 1979)

The last attempt to compile all the information about the terrestrial arthropods of Canada — 1979’s Canada and its Insect Fauna — was published as a hard copy volume. A printed book is a very useful tool. I connect with books in a way that I simply can’t with electronic resources. That being said, there are limitations to a book: it’s not easily updated without being reprinted; there are only three ways into it (front to back via the Table of Contents, back to front via the Index, and “browse”); and it tends to be aimed at a particular audience. The Biota of Canada, as I envision it, needs to be more like a multi-dimensional filing cabinet whose drawers can be opened from any direction.

Species databases. If the Biota of Canada were a house, this would be the foundation. Everything else rests on this. Traditionally, species databases grew out of efforts by individual specialists or groups working on particular taxa or in particular regions. They used to be on 3×5 file cards. Later on floppy disks, usually in word processor language. Sometimes in programs that people wrote themselves, but didn’t always share. Things have changed. Mostly. We now have internationally accepted standards (the Darwin Core) and an organization (the Global Biodiversity Information Facility) to help standardize, compile and connect databases. Here in Canada, the Canadensys initiative has made great strides in databasing and sharing specimen data of highly diverse groups (plants, fungi, insects) in selected large collections across the country. But we still have a long way to go. Initiatives such as GBIF and Canadensys must continue to be supported, our databases must grow as a community effort, and the structure must accommodate multiple inputs and be set up to allow (and encourage!) verifiability of records and quality control.

Published checklists and catalogs. A species database is big and powerful, but not always terribly user-friendly in day to day use. Published checklists or catalogs of selected taxa from selected regions are compilations extracted from the master database, and will likely be the most frequently used products. They sit on our desks and get scribbled in and annotated (and hopefully those annotations are eventually fed back into the main database). It’s nice to know I can turn on the computer and perform a customized search for taxon X in locality Z, but to be honest, my ancient and battered and annotated 1965 Catalogue of North American Diptera gets a lot of use on my desk. I just wish there were a more recent version . . .

Species pages. If a database is the link to a name, species pages are the clearing house for all the information attached to that name and that species. Several initiatives already underway have made great progress on building pages for individual species. Check out the fantastic virtual museum at the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum for a great start on species pages for Canadian insects. These pages are user-friendly portals to taxonomic, ecological, geographic and other information about species. We simply need more of them. This is one of the primary goals of the Encyclopedia of Life.

Identification tools, field guides and popular books. We cannot underestimate the value of field guides and user-friendly identification tools in building interest across a wide range of users. As a research scientist, I use technical keys and taxonomic monographs a lot, but if I want to get a new student or a non-scientist excited about biodiversity, I’ll show them a field guide, or a picture key, or a beautifully illustrated book of diversity. Whether it’s a field guide to the birds, or the insects, or the lichens of North America is secondary. What matters most is that there is a lot of nature packed in there and all of it has names and natural history. Better knowledge of our biota facilitates these popular products and these products, in turn, encourage people to notice, appreciate, identify and document our biota.

Of course, all of the above is just one person’s vision of what the big project might look like. Others may have their own clear, and different, vision of the end product. That’s fine. It gives us something to talk about while we begin to assemble that enormous list.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Many ways forward: towards a Biota of Canada

  1. Here’s a pub that expands more on names as key to a big new biology: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2010.09.004

  2. Hi David. Thanks for posting that link. That paper is a great example of the kinds of tools we have available (or will have available) to facilitate this whole enterprise.

  3. felixsperling says:

    Great blog posting, Terry. Names ARE the key. And the multiple but INTEGRATED ways forward that you have listed mean that everyone can contribute according to their inclinations and abilities. Thanks also for the plug for the Strickland Museum species pages.

  4. Thanks, Felix. I think integration and a broad view of the many potential products are key, and it’s one of the things that makes this exercise in 2013 very different than it might have been in the 1970s. The diversity of information and expertise that a wide range of professionals, amateurs, taxonomists, ecologists, bioinformaticians, butterfly watchers, birders, community groups and others can bring to the undertaking is, I think, a great strength. We, as a community, just need to find a way to harness and focus all that expertise and enthusiasm (I’ll hold up Alberta again as a great example with the Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild and what that group has been able to accomplish in just a few years).

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