Mark Costello

Naming all the fish in the sea

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

There are plenty of fish in the sea, but it's not always easy to know which one you've caught - especially if it has multiple names. For the last ten years, a marine biologist from the Universtiy of Auckland has been helping to run WoRMS - the World Register of Marine Species - so that information on all the world's sea critters can be stored in one place. So far, the 300+ taxonomists have added half a million names, which adds up to around 240,000 species on the database.

Journal/conference: Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Organisation/s: University of Auckland

Media Release

From: Mark Costello

How to inventory the names of all species on Earth

There are millions more names for species on Earth than there are species, and numerous ways of classifying them. This creates problems for managing species important as food, pests, and needing special conservation measures, and detecting invasive and pathogenic species. It means that when non-experts use online databases and the literature they may overlook species because they have not realised some names mean the same species, or names that refer to different species.

To date there is no complete inventory of all species names that links the valid names to their alternatives and is dynamic in being continuously updated. This requires not only the capture of all the names in one database, but experts (called taxonomists) to manually reconcile names that refer to the same species and flag names that may refer to more than one species. There is no simple one-time solution, because thousands of new species are being discovered every year, and new knowledge leads to existing species names being re-classified.  Thus it needs to be constantly updated linked to who made the decisions and supporting literature. Thus a long-term affordable business model is needed.

Now the marine biology community believes it has the answer.

For over a decade almost 300 marine taxonomists have collaborated in a centralised online database called the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS). In this, half a million names have been validated to represent 240,000 species. The names are classified and linked to published literature and a range of other information on the species.

The content is collectively owned by the WoRMS Editorial Board (not individuals or institutions) and hosted in a special database created by the Flanders Marine Institute’s Data Centre in Belgium. The editors are based all over the world and edit the content online, with updates every minute. Editors volunteer their time as a scientific service (as many do for scientific journals). Being on the Editorial Board is by invitation and prestigious, and means users can easily contact the world experts as needed.

In a paper published in the prestigious journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution this week, the founding and current Chairs of the WoRMS Editorial Board propose that this model of individual and institutional collaboration, governance, and data management should be replicated to provide a fully global inventory and classification of all species that is continuously updated. They do not suggest it should directly build on the WoRMS infrastructure. Rather, the WoRMS experience in the management of intellectual property, social community, and centralised dynamic database could be replicated by other communities of taxonomists.

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    Leatherjacket at the Poor Knights, New Zealand.

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