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Online tools make biodiversity more accessible to public

December 16, 2008

Researchers from Arizona State University are developing a Web tool that promises to revolutionize the way that park rangers, grade school teachers and members of the public access information about the living world, with support from the National Science Foundation.

The Symbiota project will be piloted by Corinna Gries, an associate research professor at the Global Institute of Sustainability, Thomas Nash, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, and Edward Gilbert of the Global Institute of Sustainability, and involve collaborators from the Desert Sonoran Museum in Tucson, Ariz., and other institutions in the Southwest. 

There is a lot we don’t know about the world’s species, but a large amount of what we do know has been historically accessible only to professional researchers. Gries hopes Symbiota will be a big step toward changing that.

“Symbiota will have the most impact on non-specialists,” she relates, “currently they have trouble getting access to biodiversity information.”  

The importance of Symbiota is that it is not just a database for thousands of organisms, but rather a set of what biologists refer to as keys. Historically, printed keys allow users trying to identify an organism the ability to slowly narrow down possible matches from a list of all possible options.

To do this, keys offer a series of questions to a user; similar to what happens in the game “20 Questions.” In this case, however, the questions are in an either/or format, such as: “Are the leaves simple or compound?” or “Is the blade margin of the leaf toothed or lobed?”

With each successive question/answer exchange, the user gets one step closer to what is hopefully the correct identification. Keys are not without their problems, however.

“One problem…is that they are written by specialists who are very familiar with the groups they study and they can be very difficult for a lay person to interpret,” says Gries.  

Symbiota has many advantages over more traditional keys. First, it can be accessed by anyone who can connect to the Internet. Secondly, the online keys are interactive, allowing users to choose whatever question they’d like to start with. This approach allows for a quicker identification process, because Symbiota will work to eliminate questions from the list that aren’t needed, based on the input information.

Since keys are integrated with a vast number of collections’ records, the specimen’s location can be used to also narrow the criteria. This allows the user, who might be looking for a lichen species in Arizona, to avoid the tedious process of keying through hundreds of species only found outside the state. Finally, the Internet allows photographs and descriptions of an organism’s structures to be displayed and constantly updated, which can be invaluable in identification.  

Aside from benefits that Symbiota might provide to researchers and land managers, Nash and Gries are excited about the potential this dynamic Web tool has for educators. According to Nash, a grade school teacher, who wants to teach his or her students about the plants in a specific area on a field trip, for instance, can get a list of the potential plants in an area and generate refined keys which students can use to identify the specific plants they will encounter.

Over the past 30 years, Nash, with the help of collaborators from all over the globe, has amassed a collection of some 110,000 specimens of lichen at the ASU Lichen Herbarium. His lichens will be just one of the groups incorporated into the online keys. Funding for the project, also facilities collaboration with colleagues in Germany and furthers existing computer database applications, such as the Southwest Environmental Information Network (SEINet), which also incorporates information from ASU’s Natural History Collections. 

Why is it so important to identify what’s out there? Being able to accurately identify where organisms are on our planet is the first step to many other endeavors. Given an ever-changing world, taking action becomes especially urgent as scientists continue to predict a bleak future for many of our planet’s organisms.

The scope of the Symbiota project allows it to play an important role in contributing to the wide-scale collaboration to survey and effectively inventory the number and distribution of Earth’s species. Symbiota links professionals and community members with one another and with vast, diverse and widely distributed collections in a streamlined framework that allows for more efficient progress.  

Quentin Wheeler, vice president and dean of ASU’s College of Liberal Art and Sciences, professor in the School of Life Sciences and director of the International Institute for Species Exploration, is excited about the potential of Symbiota.

“The Southwest is one of the most species-rich, yet poorly-explored biodiversity regions in the United States. This project is an exciting, leading effort to make the flora known and accessible to scientists and the public and will be an important step forward for the region.” 

Rick Overson,