Species explorers ask: What's on Your planet?

March 02, 2008

TEMPE, Ariz. - Taxonomy, the science responsible for species exploration and classification, has been largely ignored in recent decades - a disregard that a new International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University 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.

To bring attention to cybertaxonomy and to celebrate the founding of the institute, a symposium and inaugural Linnaean Legacy Lecture is set 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. Speakers include: David Williams, senior researcher and head of Global Biodiversity in the Botany Department of the Natural History Museum, London; Olivier Rieppel, the MacArthur Curator of Fossil Reptiles and chair of the Department of Geology at the Field Museum in Chicago; Robert E. Kohler, emeritus professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Schmitt, editor-in-chief of Bonner zooogische Beiträge and with the Zoological Research Museum in Bonn, Germany; and Diana Lipscomb, professor of biological sciences, George Washington University.

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."

"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."

The International Institute for Species Exploration previously 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 www.PlanetBob.asu.edu and the video "Planet Bob" represent new ways to draw attention to and increase public awareness of biodiversity and taxonomy, in a creative fusion between academia and popular technology, Wheeler says.
-end-
More information is at species.asu.edu.

Arizona State University
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
International Institute for Species Exploration
Tempe, Arizona USA
species.asu.edu

Arizona State University

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