Fishes are among the most informatized organisms that I know. There may be a number of reasons for that, but reasons aside, the fact is that Daniel Pauly and Rainer Froese created FishBase independently of Bill Eschmeyer’s Catalog of Fishes, and ichthyologist Julian Humphries created the museum collection database with the collection management system MUSE back in the late 1980s, giving fish collections a head start in informatics. Since 1976 Joseph Nelson has published the Fishes of the World, now in its fourth edition, as an index to systematic ichthyology and with an eclectic classification.
Whereas FishBase has a given hit rate of 20 million per month and so is doing fine, the Catalog of Fishes is maybe less well known. It started first as a catalog of genera of fishes, but was expanded and eventually published as three huge volumes with scientific names of fishes, over 50 000, complete with type locality, current status, and literature reference. It is presently a web resource and updated frequently. For the layman it may look like just too boring, but for the scientists it is a goldmine saving enormously on the time of finding information about specific species and their names.
This kind of compilations is important, because biodiversity research is facing now an enormous problem with names. There may be 1.8 million named species, and many more million out there to be found, but only a million or so species have been secured in databases. And every year at least 16 000 new species are described.
GBIF have an initiative called the GNI (Global Names Index) to harvest all names, and a structure, the GNA (Global Names Architecture) to manage them. They will do this together with other acronyms such as PESI. In the meantime, the Catalogue of Life, a collaboration including the US ITIS and global consortium Species2000, have a checklist of the world’s species with just a little over 1 million in, and where FishBase is one of the best parts.
But we cannot have it like this, endlessly chasing names that people drop here and there in more or less obtainable publications. Zoological and Botanical nomenclature have to go modern and collaborate with information society. There have to be a registration system for names, and the habit of paper publication has to go away in favor of digital publication.
To those not familiar with nomenclature, the situation is the following: For a name to be available and thus accepted to use as a scientific name for a species, genus, or family, it has to be published on paper with a few more simple conditions such as a certain number of copies and a degree of obtainability. It is perfectly OK to publish 2 copies of a species description and give them away to 25 people who all except one throw their copy away within 24 hours. The single surviving copy is now the globally accepted token for the name of that species. Not surprising that many taxonomist spend most of their time searching for publications instead of doing real research.
Digital-only publishing is not permitted. Well, there is an exception for CD-ROMs with deposition in libraries, but it is a bit awkward and it may be difficult to find those CD-ROMs.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature is the body that writes the rules for Zoological Nomenclature – of course with the needs and well-being of the taxonomic community taken good care of. The Commission is now seriously considering digital-only, what we call e-only publishing of zoological names; and seriously considering a registration system for old and new names.
Both proposals are controversial. Concerning e-only publising there is now a proposed amendment to the Code, and the Commission has invited comments and discussions. Some of the discussion is now published, and worth reading.
Formalisation of ZooBank as a registry for new names is maybe a bit further away, but unavoidable. In contrast to a Code amendment, it requires an infrastructure and running funds that are not immediately available. Nevertheless, Richard Pyle, ichthyologist at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawai’i, is working day and night to build up the structure for ZooBank. You can already get a glimpse of the future from the development site. There are already much more than 5 000 nomenclatural acts registered.
ZooBank will have a healthy starter boost from Catalog of Fishes, so from a fish perspective this is perhaps no big step forward. But notice, there is an ichthyologist programming ZooBank!
Yes, Ichthyology rules biodiversity informatics …