TaxonAid is an online tool dedicated to the improvement of techniques in taxonomic identification. We think that an approach using high quality interactive movement-based resources and existing identification keys represents the best way to both maximise efficiency of identification and also to provide an engaging learning and teaching environment.
The fundamental questions
- How many species are there? This is a fundamental question in biology and without this knowledge, we are unable to accurately evaluate anthropological impacts on biodiversity and implement suitable empirical actions.
- Are species in the right place? Invasive species are one of the biggest contributors to biodiversity loss around the world. Be it the introduction of a predator to an ecosystem that has evolved without the presence of such pressures, or the transfer of diseases into populations that have little or no natural resistance, we need to identify introduced species to effectively tackle the problem.
- Which species are useful? Around 25% of pharmaceutical drugs are synthesised from plants, yet the majority of people are unable to identify the majority of plant species in their own back gardens.
Taxonomy is a dying science. We are currently running low on highly trained personnel, capable of identifying the huge diversity of Earth’s species. This hasn’t been helped by a general waning interest in the subject, plus the perception that is a poorly rewarded discipline.
The situation is worsened by a lack of progression in methods deployed by taxonomists. Books, often containing jargon heavy descriptions of anatomical parts, coupled with drawings and photographs are currently the most popular, albeit most common method used by taxonomists to identify species. Unfortunately, such material requires a substantial underpinning knowledge of particular taxa, making the whole process inaccessible to the majority of people.
Tackling the problem
Technology could potentially play a critical role in revitalising taxonomic research, and broadening its accessibility to a wide range of people and abilities. Bringing physical specimens into the digital realm allows for not only a more accessible source of reference, but a more dynamic and appealing way for people to engage with taxonomy in a an increasingly technology driven world.
Using high resolution macro photographs, we have produced rotatable interactive models with “hot-spotting” to highlight specific identifiers. These are integrated with existing paper keys, which can be used by anyone to identify species in an interactive and interesting way.
We have initially photographed one particular group of organisms, British drone flies (Eristalini), an easily identifiable ‘tribe’ of hoverflies (Syriphidae). Integrated with the current paper key Stubbs and Falk 2002, we hope to test the effectiveness of these models.
The TaxonAid project is coordinated by Christopher Hassall at the University of Leeds and Rich Burkmar at the Field Studies Council. This project is jointly funded by the University of Leeds and the Field Studies Council as part of the FSC’s ‘Tomorrow’s Biodiversity Project. Photography, development of the method, and model creation has been undertaken by David Bodenham.
The team would like to thank Pete Kirby for providing specimens and Roger Key for advice on a suitable taxa for testing.
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