A few years ago, John Maynard Smith, one of the most distinguished evolutionary biologists of twentieth century wrote an important book called the ‘Major Transitions in Evolution’. He proposed that the saga of life on earth may be visualized as involving a series of major transitions, with organisms evolving capabilities of handling ever larger quantities of newer and newer kinds of information. This is now culminating in the present day Information and Communication Technology revolution that has brought us to the threshold of yet another major transition, namely from Language based human societies –to- Human societies with global access to the entire stock of human knowledge, and engaged in an endeavour of collaborative knowledge generation. IT-savvy Indians have begun to take advantage of such possibilities; for example, an excellent Indian attempt along these lines is the Google e-group- Indiantreepix, devoted to creating awareness, and helping in identification along with discussion on and documentation of Indian Flora. Here information is shared on a real time basis for the benefit of all stakeholders, minimizing delays and hastening information exchange. The group follows a multi-disciplinary approach with membership from diverse background. Anyone interested is welcome to join this e-group http://groups.google.co.in/group/indiantreepix?hl=en and post photos of a plant (along with place and date) for identification, discussion, and sharing. Every species discussed gets included in the Indiantreepix Database that currently covers more than 2100 species.
Naturally, taxonomists worldwide have begun to take advantage of these possibilities, and developed a number of web-based applications such as checklists, floras and faunas, and interactive identification keys. While the information is universally accessible, editors and authors with permissions can correct and update the data with the use of web forms, permitting world wide, yet well regulated, collaboration. An effort of particular interest to us is that of the Flora of China. This collaboration has involved several hundred botanists and computer experts, working in many different organizations worldwide and has made remarkable progress, generating excellent information on many Indian plant species as well.
Flora of China experience
Now, through the World Wide Web, botanists are able to instantaneously provide checklists and floras to users worldwide and update them as the taxonomies of the groups are revised and further data are gathered. Several current flora projects provide online treatments: the Flora of Australia (Orchard & Thompson, 1999–), Flora Europaea (Tutin & al., 1993–), Flora Zambesiaca (Exell & Wild, 1960–), Flora Mesoamericana (Davidse & al., 1994–), Flora of China (Wu & Raven, 1994–), and the Flora of North America (Flora of North America Editorial Committee, 1993–). This web-based program called eFloras (URL: http://www .efloras.org/) was developed to enable access to online “electronic” floras. Through a web interface to the data, users can browse online floristic treatments by volume, family, and genus, and can search by name, distributional data, and text. With the use of web forms, editors and authors with permissions can correct and update the data of the Flora of China Checklists.
Online checklists provide an invaluable source of plant names and publication data at local, regional, and global scales. The Flora of China Checklist is a database searchable via a web interface (URL:http://mobot.mobot.org/W3T/Search/FOC/ projsfoc.html) at Missouri Botanical Garden. It is a systematic reference that will contain all of the scientific names that have been published for China. The Checklist contains all of the scientific names of species, combined with their distributions in China (at the provincial level) and adjacent, bordering countries, the elevations at which the plants grow, botanical synonyms, bibliographic citations, and endemism. The scientific names are dynamically linked to other available data, such as volume: page and illustrations in the Flora Reipublicae Popularis Sinicae (FRPS) and FOC.
The FOC Project verifies the original citation of each name, and records the publication data according to recognized taxonomic standards. Many collaborators on the FOC project, and other botanists, who do not have access to all of the relevant literature, have found the checklist valuable for their work. Verification provides scientists with reliable citation information as to whether or not a name is validly published. It is estimated that the checklist will contain a total of about 135,000 botanical names, including synonyms.
The Flora of China Web (URL: http://flora.huh.havard.edu/china/) provides a regularly updated newsletter, introductory information, floristic treatments (databased descriptions in HTML and PDF formats, and illustrations), interactive keys for identification, botanical papers pertaining to the FOC published in the journals Novon, Annals of Missouri Botanical Garden, and Harvard Papers in Botany, related searchable data (e.g., the FOC Checklist, the Hu Card Index), images, links to the FOC illustrations, guidelines for contributors, and information on editorial centers and the people involved in the Project.
Web-based interactive identification keys such as DELTAINTKEY (Dallwitz, 1980; Dallwitz & al., 1993–, 2002–); and ActKey (Brach & Song, 2005) present a simple alternative to lengthy, indented or bracketed keys. An online interface to interactive identification keys should enable users to select easily observable and readily available characteristics to identify a specimen.
Cyber-Taxonomy for India
Much of the taxonomic work relies on the `printed literature’, and protologues, most of which are often isolated from, and inaccessible to, most taxonomists (especially for those in developing countries). Most of the critical information needed for the taxonomic resolve is held up in old and scattered type specimens, which again are not always easily accessible. These difficulties have constrained the interactions among the taxonomic workers across the world in general and in developing countries such as India in particular. Thus taxonomic work is often isolated and or polarized, consequent to which the spirit of global taxonomy, a feature that taxonomic work demands, is lacking. Taxonomists have frequently identified this as a limiting factor for their work.
With the advent of new tools for compiling, processing and serving information, several of the hurdles faced by the taxonomists, especially by those in the developing countries, can be greatly overcome by the establishment of a cyber-taxonomic space. Cyber-taxonomy is envisaged as a web based single platform where all the taxonomists working in a group of organisms can gain access to virtual e-herbarium/ museum that has all the relevant images, data and information on specimens and literature (e-types, e-data and e-library). This virtual herbarium/museum would facilitate the global set of taxonomists working on that group to refer, interact, agree or disagree upon the taxonomic issues as a unified working group so that they can together arrive at a globally consensus list of checklists, names and associated features which will be kept track of continuously on the web. Making these details available in a single window would also help non-taxonomists to keep track of the names and details of the organisms so that the difficulties that are being faced at present can be avoided.
Such a facility is most immediately required for a country like India and we should assume leadership in setting up a cybertaxonomic space for the entire Asia given our IT strengths. To begin with, the efforts can be initiated on specific groups or families with a plan to eventually integrate them. BSI and ZSI can set the following specific objectives to begin with for this purpose:
1. Establishment of required hardware, software and interactive space for the cyber-taxonomic work.
2. Compilation and digitization of relevant datasets, type specimen, other images, taxonomic text, protologues etc., to create e-details (e-types, e-data and e-library).
3. Development of a web-version of the checklist of species and loading them with e-details on the web.
4. Capacity building among the taxonomists to use, and work on the Cyber-taxonomic space.
5. Facilitate the taxonomic work on the web version of the checklist.
6. Develop a system of updating the web-version of checklist and the e-details regularly.
Many leading taxonomic institutions in the world such as Missouri Botanical Garden and Smithsonian Institute have strong education and outreach programmes and it would be appropriate that Botanical and Zoological Surveys also promote such activities in a systematic and vigorous manner. Another good model is our own National Remote Sensing Agency that conducts many very well subscribed short term courses. The Botanical and Zoological Surveys should organize short term courses in identification of specific taxa (common ones like trees, birds and butterflies as well as rare taxa) aimed at undergraduate and M Sc students, as well as practicing scientists in other disciplines such as ecology. Such courses would also cater to the needs of District level centers of systematic biology when these are established. Botanical and Zoological Surveys should also establish mechanisms for working with and encouraging members of groups like ‘Indiantreepix’ so that they can share their experiences on flora of a particular region with the Survey scientists.
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