Proposals for Taxonomy in the 21st Century

The purposes and potential taxonomic significance of a Japanese ant database


It will be possible in the 21st century to use computer networks for the exchange of visual color information on a real-time basis. We envisage the future preparation of a visual color database of the type specimens of ants, and that this database will be universally accessible through computer networks, including the Internet and SINET, which is sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. In this way information on ant taxonomy could readily be shared world-wide by all interested people.
Our group is well-advanced in the preparation of a visual color database featuring the ants of Japan. This project will serve as a model for the above-mentioned global project.
We have resolved many basic problems encountered in the preparation of visual color databases. Financial support specifically related to databases has been provided for fiscal 1993 and 1994 by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.

1. The current state and problems of ant taxonomy in Japan

Since ancient times ants have been in close contact, and have maintained close relationships, with humans. They feature widely in publications dealing with biological science, from children's books and elementary school texts to advanced works. In recent years ants, and data about them, have become increasingly important in environmental assessments. For these reasons and others demands for confident identification of ant species are increasingly prevalent.
Work on the taxonomy and classification of Japanese ants encounters the following problems:

1) A critical shortage of appropriate specialists.

At present several young scientists interested in ant systematics are being trained. Nonetheless, the classification and identification of ants in this country is carried out primarily by dedicated amateurs. Although these workers have extensive relevant knowledge, often comparable to that expected of professionals, they have limited capacities to meet the more academic challenges involved.

2) Lack of adequate type- or confidently identified reference specimens in Japan

About 170 species of ants are described or reported from Japan, but only about 20 species are represented by type specimens in Japanese collections, and the types involved are those of species which were described relatively recently. Thus, the type specimens of about 90% of all Japanese ant species, including the oldest and most important, are housed in overseas museums, and many can be studied only by visiting those museums. Relevant institutions include: the Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom; the Naturhistorisches Museum, Basel, Switzerland, and the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. As a result, It is rarely possible for Japanese researchers to check the true identity of Japanese ant species by comparison of modern material with type specimens. It is possible to receive type specimens on loan from foreign collections, but this option is rarely available to individuals other than a limited number of specialists, usually professionals.
The currently-used formal zoological names applied by researchers to Japanese ants are based on identifications made by the few previous or present Japanese workers who have visited museums abroad, or who have been able to borrow type specimens from overseas. Because no records of the identification protocols remain, it is not possible to check or review the quality of these identifications, and much of the work needs to be repeated using modern technologies and protocols.

3) The lack of a museum in Japan with holdings covering all species of Japanese ants.

In Japan, almost all scientifically important specimens of ants are in the care of individual amateur collectors. Samples of very common species are not always retained, and no public, or recognized major private, museum has representative specimens of all Japanese ants, or even a good proportion of the species known from amateur collections.
These problems pertain not only to ant taxonomy but also to most other taxonomic issues in Japanese biological science. They in fact exemplify a current state of major deficiency in Japanese biological taxonomy as a whole.

2. Problems of classical taxonomy

Major problems in this category involve:

1) Limited access in Japan to taxonomic information

Since very few Japanese workers have studied type specimens, most of which are, in any case, difficult of access by most interested workers, the bulk of former work relies on largely subjective judgements by individual taxonomists. For this reason, differences of opinion have not been properly formulated, and it is difficult for many topics in taxonomy to receive objective discussion.

2) Excessive burdens on taxonomists

The identification of species in a given higher taxon, such as an insect family like that of the ants (the family Formicidae) relies on taxonomists who specialize on that taxon. Taxonomists therefore spend much time providing identification services to others who are less specialised and knowledgeable.
In the worst circumstance, which is commonly encountered, such taxonomists become so burdened that they cannot cope with many or most identification requests, and their time for research is greatly compromised.

3) Loss of type specimens

Type specimens on loan from overseas, or in transit, are always exposed to the risk of loss or damage, with serious consequences to science.

4) Adequacy of Taxonomic information

Taxonomic information presented only in verbal form is usually inadequate.
Many new species have been described only verbally, without supporting illustrations, even though accurate representation of complex shapes and 3-dimensional forms, colours, hair patterns (pilosity and pubescence), and surface ornamentation (sculpturation) of organisms is difficult or impossible to visualise from words alone. Line drawings depicting the general outlines of specimens have often been traditionally used to supplement the text of descriptions. More recently, monochrome photographs have sometimes been used. Thus, the media for the transmission of taxonomic information have evolved more-or-less from text on its own, to text plus line drawings, to text plus photographs. Visual information in colour represents the next-generation in this development. The use of color photographs can notably expand and extend the transmission of taxonomic information in concise statements.
The work of our ant study group on the preparation of a database of visual color images of all Japanese ant species was initiated following careful review of the history of Japanese ant taxonomy and the development of a reasoned perspective for its future.

3. A plan to develop a visual color database featuring the type specimens of ants

In order to relieve many of the above-mentioned serious problems attending systematic biology, we propose the creation of a visual color database covering the type specimens of ants.
The proposal involves the storage on photographic compact discs (CDs) of high-resolution color photographs of type specimens, maintained as digital graphic files. We have confirmed that minute morphological features, details of pilosity, sculpturation, color and other information useful to classification, can be reproduced with high reliability using our methods.
Digital graphic information does not deteriorate with time, and, like text information, it can be exchanged over computer networks. Therefore, if a data base containing graphic and other relevant taxonomic data is established, useful taxonomic information could be shared by interested people world wide, transcending current limits of space and time. The potential users of such a system range from children and ordinary people to the most esoteric of scientific specialists, and the system is sufficiently novel and innovative to serve as a paradigm to others in related fields.
Old type specimens are often found to have deteriorated in storage, causing some relevant details of structure to became unclear. To obviate the effects of this each photograph of a type specimen will be accompanied by color photographs of a recently acquired ant of the same species. This will greatly increase the accuracy and facility of the data-base.
Furthermore, the application of random-access classification and search functions to the primary database will simplify the otherwise complex procedures of search and classification, so that even basically-skilled amateurs can easily use the data to build their knowledge and abilities.
In the light of new and developing technologies the 21st century should become the age of open taxonomy. In this prospect it is desirable that major museums and research institutions around the world should work together to promote visual color databases and provide publicly accessible taxonomic information through computer networks like SINET and Internet. This would greatly extend the limits of their currently-perceived role of simply collecting, housing, and providing local access to type specimens, with that access inevitably limited to very few people over time.

4. The Smith Collection as a model case

Within the framework of the project outlined above, members of the Myrmecological Society of Japan have recently succeeded in the preparation of a visual CD database covering the 10 type specimens of Japanese ants described by Frederick Smith, and held at the Natural History Museum, London (UK). These specimens were discussed by Smith in 1874, in a paper dealing with Hymenoptera gathered in the vicinity of Kobe by the English tea merchant George Lewis, near the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Eleven species new to science were described. The type specimen of one, Camponotus vitiosus, could not be found. We were able to prepare color photographs of the types of the remaining ten. The resulting illustrations were stored on photo CDs and incorporated into the WWW ant database, so that they can be readily compared by other workers with color photographs of other species using the Internet.
We propose in the next few years to visit museums all over the world; thus to prepare a color visual database including type specimens of all ant species known from Japan.
Details of the formal scientific name (and synonyms in some cases), the standard Japanese name, the standard code number, and the type-status of each photographed specimen are:

  1. Polyrhachis lamellidens JFC 81104 Syntype

  2. Paratrechina flavipes JFC 80501 Lectotype
    =Tapinoma flavipes

  3. Brachyponera chinensis JFC 10701 Syntype
    =Ponera solitaria

  4. Messor aciculatus JFC 40501 Syntype
    =Aphaenogaster aciculata

  5. Aphaenogaster famelica JFC 40401 Holotype
    =Ischnomyrmex famelicus

  6. Leptothorax congruus JFC 40703 Holotype

  7. Monomorium intrudens JFC 41105 Holotype

  8. Pheidole fervida JFC 40602 Syntype (Soldier)

  9. Pheidole nodus JFC 40605 Syntype (soldier)

  10. Crematogaster laboriosa JFC 42101 Syntype