Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Developing a network of parataxonomists

The concept of parataxonomy is not new – in his work in Costa Rica Dan Janzen became a major exponent of the idea, which has caught on in many ways. Current crowd-sourced identification systems such as iSpot are arguably one form of parataxonomy. I like to think that the UK Hoverflies Facebook page has parallels with parataxonomy – especially where there is a fusion between people whose primary interest is photography and those with interests in biological recording.

What I find especially encoraging is the way in which this interaction is leading to more active members searching out species that they might hitherto have ignored or not seen. From a first glance, I think the data from 2015 will be rather different when compared to that from 2014. There seem to be many more posts of Cheilosia, pipizines and the 'awkward squad' of small Chrysogastrines and Bacchines.

It is also noticeable that several people whose initial interest in photography has progressed to retaining specimens to pass on to me for identification; thus we will hopefully be able to match photos to firm identifications. In time this may help to refine our understanding of how to identify species from photos and the subtle features of live animals that are lost in museum specimens. There is a long way to go, but this is a great start. Ideally we need to recruit more participants in this approach.

Thinking in broader terms, it strikes me that there are potentially significant numbers of people who want to develop inventories of what occurs on their favoured site or locale – maybe an island, a village or parish. Obviously photography will help, but it can only go so far.

I'm far from clear how many recording schemes actually engage with photographers – probably relatively few to any major degree. Some will doubtless feel that there is no point engaging to find that most species cannot be fully identified (I have head that from several scheme organisers). Others may feel they cannot commit the time, which is a fair point because this sort of engagement is highly time-consuming. Yet, if we really want to develop a strong network of recorders of more difficult taxa we must engage and look for ways to increase interaction between interested and willing local recorders and those with the taxonomic skills needed to create reliable records.

The development of a more comprehensive parataxonomic network therefore seems to me to be an essential next step. We need to find a way of encouraging/recruiting people who will collect specimens and pass them on for identification (or storage for later identification), and to match this commitment to the available taxonomic specialists. Most recording scheme organisers probably do this in an ad-hoc manner when they identify problem specimens sent to them. But, we might do so much more to develop a data flow that really improves coverage. Parts of the country may not be populated by specialists in more difficult taxa, but there is a better chance of finding people who might collect material for dispersal to specialists for identification.

Making such a system happen is a challenge. Inevitably, if one starts to collect specimens there will be a stage when new recruits only see and retain obvious species, but they will (and do) develop skills that yield a wider range of taxa. What is important is to make sure that material submitted gets identified and logged, with feedback to local contributors so they know what they have generated and can start to see a picture of their chosen area unfold.

I would love to get such a system up and running for hoverflies but am mindful that all sorts of other flies will be passed on and will need identification. I therefore think that we might try to make something happen amongst the schemes run under the umbrella of Dipterists Forum. Is there somebody that might take on the organising role if we could make it happen? I'm not sure I have the time, but will happily promote such a concept amongst the developing networks of UK Hoverflies and UK Diptera Facebook pages.

The follow-up question is then whether there is an appetite for such a system developed through the NBN and local records centres? My vision would be the development of a national network that would generate records from widely dispersed and otherwise under-recorded places. If successful it might help to resolve the problem of some areas of the UK being substantially under-recorded.

Now, this all sounds fine, but the follow-up question is whether there is the technical capacity to identify the inflow of specimens? At current levels of activity there probably is. BUT, we have seen with the UK Hoverflies Facebook page that its success means that there is a need for several toxonomically competent people to engage. In the case of UK Hoverflies we now have a team of five running the site. I could not have coped without the help of Ian, Joan, Judy & Stephen. I am eternally grateful to them all for their help, and also to Gerard Pennards upon whom we call for expert advice fairly regularly.

That experience clearly illustrates the need to think in advance about the scale of uptake that might be involved and what it means in terms of organisational and technical support. Running a recording scheme today is very different to the concept developed in the 1960s and 70s. We need to embrace the new technology but also to pay attention to the technical capacity needed to make such systems work.

This seems to me to be the next stage in the biological recording journey and one that should be considered by those who have an interest in promoting biological recording.

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