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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.