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Species explorers ask: What’s on your planet?

February 28, 2008

Taxonomy, the science responsible for species exploration and classification, has been largely ignored in recent decades – a disregard that ASU’s new International Institute for Species Exploration is out to change.

“Our vision is to spark a renaissance in taxonomy through a transdisciplinary fusion of ideas and technologies,” says founding director Quentin Wheeler, an entomologist and ASU vice president and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“In particular, we are, in concert with partner museums and botanical gardens around the world, committed to transforming taxonomy into what will effectively prove a new field: cybertaxonomy,” he says.

“This fusion of the traditional theories and goals of taxonomy with computer engineering and cyberinfrastructure will create a powerful, distributed, worldwide research platform for descriptive taxonomy,” Wheeler says. “This goes far, far beyond databases or Web sites. One of our first projects is designing a network of remotely operable digital microscopes so that a scientist in Brazil might manipulate, examine and photograph a type specimen in a museum in London, while videoconferencing at the same time with a colleague in the United States.”

To bring attention to cybertaxonomy and to celebrate the founding of the institute a symposium and inaugural Linnaean Legacy Lecture is planned for March 3 on ASU’s Tempe campus. The symposium – “What’s on Your Planet? Species Exploration and Charting Biodiversity” – will be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. in the Fulton Center, Sixth Floor Boardroom. The inaugural Linnaean Legacy Lecture, co-sponsored by the institute and the Linnean Society of London, will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the Life Sciences Building, A-Wing, room 191.

The guest lecturer is Norman I. Platnick, the Peter J. Solomon Family Curator of Spiders at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His topic is “Coming of Age (at 250!): The Past, Present and Future of the Systematics Workforce.”

The lecture is named for the great Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linne – also known as Carolus Linnaeus – who initiated the modern system of plant and animal names and classifications. The 300th anniversary of his birth was celebrated worldwide in 2007.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the beginning of animal naming, though today, millions of species remain unknown or unidentifiable, inaccessible to science and society.

“Frankly, the speed at which species are becoming extinct is alarming,” Wheeler says. “Charting the species of the world and their unique attributes are essential parts of understanding the history of life. Reliable taxonomic information is necessary for managing sustainable ecosystems, attaining conservation goals, and detecting introductions of pests, vectors and invasive species.”

To draw attention to and increase public awareness of biodiversity and taxonomy, the International Institute for Species Exploration partnered with Media Alchemy of Seattle to produce a humorous video titled “Planet Bob.” Launched on YouTube last October, the video combines live action, state-of-the-art animation, and the vocal talents of venerable TV host Hugh Downs and others.

The Web site and the video “Planet Bob” represent new ways to present this topic, in a creative fusion between academia and popular technology, Wheeler says.

More information about the March 3 symposium and launch events is available at