Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Global Species Database Spotlight: World Ferns & World Plants

Global Species Database owner Michael Hassler 

Global Species Database name:
World Ferns / World Plants

Your name:
Michael Hassler 

Your position:  
Database owner
Where are the databases located?
On the servers of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology Botanical Garden in Karlsruhe, Germany) 

What taxon/taxa do your databases cover?
All flowering plants, ferns and lycophytes of the world. 

How many species names do you hold?
13,384 plus 1,274 infraspecific taxa in World Ferns
ca. 350.000 in World Plants

How many synonyms?
42,448 in World Ferns
ca. 1.000,000 in World Plants 

How many common names?
1,189 in World Ferns
ca. 10,000 in World Plants 

How and when did the database come about?
In the late 1980's and early 1990's some interested people and collaborators in Germany (botanists and entomologists) discussed the possibility of using computer based technology to create world checklists. This was an age when all available checklists were paper based (for example Kew Index and Index Filicum) and many people were still using early home computer generations. The first example was a worldwide checklist of weevils (Joachim Rheinheimer) which was introduced in the mid 1990's and keeps growing today. When the first generation of Kew Index was available electronically, the project for the flowering plants was started. The goal was to use the data set of Kew Index and cross-check it to regional and local databases, floras and generic treatments to create a synonymic checklist with as many synonyms as possible and a complete distribution (Kew Index does not list distribution).  The whole project is unfunded and totally a volunteer work. As expected, the project needed more than 10 years for the initial stage and is now 20 years old. 

In the early 2000's two more projects were spun off: Firstly, scans of the Index Filicum (which never was available electronically) yielded an additional dataset for the Ferns and Lycophytes; and secondly, since we had photographs of several thousand species of Orchids, the Orchids were separated as a project in cooperation with the Heidelberg Botanical Garden. The Orchid Checklist was originally intended to be published on CD, but several reasons (sickness and death of a main contributor) as well as competition from Kew delayed the project for many years. Finally it was published on our website 2009 as "Illustrated World Compendium of Orchids".  

When Kew started to publish their World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (WCSP), having more resources available, the authors of World Plants decided that Kew would probably be faster than World Plants, and stopped work on World Plants. 

Finally, in 2013 it was decided to publish the 180,000 species or so (about 50 % of total) which are not yet covered by WCSP or others, in the context of Catalogue of Life.

World Ferns developed separately and with a higher priority since WCSP did not have a similar project for Ferns and Lycophytes. The first versions were published in 2002 together with Brian Swale on his New Zealand website. Since 2006, WorldFerns has a new home on the authors website on the KIT server (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Botanical Garden) and has been met with growing interest by the community as the leading Fern checklist and taxonomic reference. It does contain pictures of about 800 species (6 % of total).

Improving on WCSP and similar projects our databases - World Ferns and World Plants - do contain pictures (at least on our own website) and we aim to include as many as possible. Orchids have more than 5500 species in pictures, and Ferns more than 800. World Ferns and World Plants also maintain a proper taxonomic order for families and genera reflecting relationships within the tree (IPNI, WCSP, Index Kewensis and others are completely alphabetically based). Only within one genus does the database use an alphabetical approach.

How many people work on the database?
Currently just myself, but many collaborators regularly supply suggestions and updates.

What software do you use?
Data assembly is done on a text file basis. The standardised text files are converted into CSV format and proprietary software converts it into the website format.

How complete is it?
Names for species are 100% complete, infraspecific taxa (var. and formae) are probably 80-90% complete. The numbers of species are currently for larger groups about 5-10 % higher than the final species count will be, since some provisionally listed species will turn out to be synonyms. 

Is it continuing to grow and if so, how?
Yes, the coverage does grow. New taxa are regularly imported from IPNI. Local checklists, floras and treatments are added once they are available.

Are there any interesting areas of taxonomic contention within your group?
In World Ferns one major area of uncertainty are the many taxa and names described during the last decades in China with uncertain taxonomic status. China is one of the most species-rich areas in the world. The new Flora of China (two of three volumes just published) does a good job for some groups but there are still large groups with plenty of uncertain names to be clarified.

Do you have a favourite species or group of taxa?
Not really. Since I still do entomological work, the most interesting groups are plants who serve as food plants for certain insects (for example Legumes). The evolutionary aspects of this are quite interesting (how does a monophagous relationship between insect and plant evolve? Is it good or bad for the insect?).

Do you have any fun or unusual names in your group?
A recently separated fern genus, Gaga, has been named after Lady Gaga. (The fun is that "gaga" means crazy in colloquial German. I am not sure how many English speakers actually know it.). This created a lot of publicity for an otherwise quite average and unremarkable fern group - good for taxonomy!

What interested you in taxonomy?
Being a Chemist by training, I have been involved in collecting insects, photographing plants and especially doing nature conservation work since my childhood and now for 35 years. Taxonomy and a proper dataset as well as good faunas and floras are the basis for everything to work with. If you try to do thorough work in any group, you are desperately in need of good checklists.

Do you think traditional taxonomy has a future?
Absolutely. Even with very good PCR and genetic results there always needs to be a proper dataset to cross-check the genetic results. With better computers and faster genetic testing, the taxonomic databases will increase in importance.

What is the most exciting recent taxonomic development in your group (if any)?
The Ferns, being a very uniform group with similar morphology and therefore obscured relationships, have for many decades "resisted" to yield a proper taxonomic tree, and many competing classifications were available. Finally, two groundbreaking papers (Christenhusz et al. 2011 as well as Rothfels et al. 2012) provided a reasonably stable framework for the taxonomic tree of the ferns - remarkably much later than similar efforts for the flowering plants.

On the floristic and regional side, there have been two extremely helpful developments: The Ferns of Taiwan (by Ralf Knapp 2010 and 2013) did a remarkable job in clarifying the taxonomy and distribution of the Taiwanese species, which are in the midst of the above described hotspot of East Asian diversity. Now at least, for about 800 species (of 2500 in the region) we have a thorough treatment. Also, Christopher Fraser-Jenkins published a series of carefully researched books about the southern Himalayan and Indian Ferns, where there is comparable diversity to China, and also clarified whole multitudes of names in an area which prior to his work had very messed-up taxonomy.

If you had the funds what improvements (if any) would you make to the database?
Not the funds, but the time and better accessibility of a large scientific library - then a more thorough cross-checking of smaller and midsize papers of genera and groups would be much desirable.

Why did you submit to the Catalogue of Life?
Because ownership of data is respected by the Catalogue of Life and proper credits are given.

Do you submit to any other biodiversity aggregators than the Catalogue of Life?
No, and not planned.

Catalogue of Life wants to thank Michael Hassler for completing our questionnaire.World Ferns checklist was published in the August edition of the Catalogue of Life and the first batch of his plant family checklists (World Plants) will be included in the September release.

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