We have been naming and describing the natural world around us for millennia, but how does this age-old science relate to the 21st century? Computers have revolutionised the modern world and smart phones have lead to global connectivity. Ideas shared, data accessed and unity of knowledge achieved at the tap of the finger. With growing interest in biodiversity and conservation many technological advances are assisting within these fields. Despite racing against the deteriorating environment, new species are being discovered at a record rate. It seems therefore, that it has never been more important to put the right name to the right species and to do so quickly.
We are currently facing a classification bottleneck. This is an issue of time, money and accessibility, constraining upon sheer number of new specimens being collected. That is not to mention the number of synonyms and misidentified species that need some serious TLC. As ever, time is money and experts are scarce, so this really is a problem of exponential proportion.
The latest revolution sits in the hands of digitalisation, of avatars and of so called 3D cybertypes. The new age of taxonomy is well and truly upon us. Focal stacking software amalgamates a series of two dimensional images to create an otherwise impossible focal range, whilst visual-hull algorithms carve into three dimensional space, stitching these stacks into tangibility. A 3D replica, an avatar, is thrust into digital existence, with full natural colour and incredible intricacy. High resolution microtomography (microCT) can then be used as a non-invasive means to map internal morphology. The result: a high resolution colour, interactive 3D interface, with the ability to explore within, differentiating between systems.
These advancements have caused some stir. With rapid characterisation of species morphology and subsequent preservation in the digital domain there is scope for broad spectrum application within entomology and beyond. These visual aids can be complemented with quick access to distribution data, DNA barcodes, research on behaviour or whatever published data required. Just as existing tools can be accessed remotely by the global community, these avatars too are accessed online and utilised in a similar way. Data banks can be pooled and comprehensive catalogues of data created, eternalised online, accessible 24/7, all at the click of a button. Recent advancements in producing data miners to sift through academic journals online have already be noted for their potential in the field of medicine. One such data miner, launched by the Seattle-based institute AI2, is already in use. Currently capable of trawling computer science literature, developers aim to scale up the programme, with extension to medical, biological and other scientific disciplines. Imagine the applications; to request a specimen from the collections and for it arrive instantaneously, perpetuated in digital perfection, to your desktop. It would contain with it a plethora of data, pooling prior research, amalgamating it to one dashboard. This is not to say that a digitalised avatar would replace the crucial type specimen. These new digital techniques are a means to acquire more data, to be more exhaustive and to enable greater ease of access, leading to higher efficiency within our field.
Our natural history collections represent centuries of passion, of exploration and of pioneers within their fields. More than just prestige, collections carry with them invaluable data, added to by centuries of continuing research. Taxonomy is not an archaic tradition, refined to dusty old cabinets behind the closed doors of museums. Taxonomy is as current today as it has ever been. It is time for taxonomy to once again hold its own, to invoke collaboration and inter-disciplinary interaction. Ultimately, we are working for the same cause. Let’s move into the digital age and grant accessibility to all. If knowledge is power and communication is key its time we join forces to liberate our knowledge in this time of rapid environmental change.
By Alice Mockford
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