Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Catalogue of Life is Moving!

The idea for the Catalogue of Life developed in the early 1990s shortly after Frank Bisby’s arrival at Reading University. Initial funding led to the first release of the Catalogue in 2000 with over 200 thousand species.  The initial aim was to have substantially completed the Catalogue of Life by this date but it became clear that far less taxonomic data was available in a readily accessible and electronic form than was first expected.  However this first publication, containing around 10% of known species proved an important step in realising future grants and projects that have now built the Catalogue to over 1.4m species. The steady growth of the Catalogue accompanied the increasing use of and dependence on the internet, not just by scientists but by the general public. This made a web-accessible list of all living things an extremely timely and welcome project for both individual and institutional users.  Over the past five years the Catalogue has been supported by two substantial Framework 7 e-infrastructure grants: 4D4Life and i4Life. These grants have allowed the Catalogue to continue its steady growth towards the target 1.9m known species despite it becoming increasingly hard to identify sources of high quality data to fill the steadily reducing number of taxonomic gaps.

Catalogue of Life continues to grow every year
However while grant based investment in the e-infrastructure for Catalogue of Life has been steady and substantial it remains difficult to find funding to generate the underlying data, especially because funding has a regional basis and the Catalogue is a truly global collaboration. The achievement of exceeding 70% coverage of all species means that the Catalogue has moved from a research project to a product that is sufficiently complete to be of value to individual and project based users. There is now a steady flow of requests to use the Catalogue of Life as a complete list of species for reference in other projects. It is now used by the major biological data portals ENA, GBIF and IUCN to provide a reference taxonomy to which their data can be linked. It is used by commercial publishers and some search engines as well as providing a species index for the EDIT platform.  Through these partners the Catalogue of Life is providing unique reference material on which biologists can assess the current state of global biodiversity.

4D4Life project meeting at Reading

The Catalogue of Life at Reading University was the major research activity of the late Prof Frank Bisby, the last academic to hold the established Chair of Botany at Reading. The project developed from one person on one computer to a dedicated laboratory filled with active staff developing both the content and the infrastructure for the Catalogue. Content was developed in close collaboration with ITIS, who continue to provide the taxonomic backbone of CoL as well as species level datasets.  The electronic infrastructure developed in collaboration with Cardiff University and ETI in the Netherlands. Frank Bisby’s drive to complete this project led to many long days in the lab, a huge international telephone bill and the close identity of Reading University and Catalogue of Life generated by Frank’s frequent speeches at international conferences where he tirelessly persuaded other scientists that they should join this project. The sudden death of Frank during the 4Life projects led to a more distributed management of the Catalogue of Life with the secretariat remaining active at Reading University but an increasingly important role for the international team of directors for Species 2000 and for the Catalogue of Life Global Team who oversee content and policy for the Catalogue.
Fern checklist
Filling gaps -  ferns have
recently been added to the Catalogue

The link with ITIS established in the first days of Catalogue of Life provided strong support throughout this period of change. Alastair Culham, project leader for i4Life stepped in to manage the completion of the 4D4Life project and, supported by the excellent i4Life team, has converted the Catalogue of Life into a product with international presence. The editorial continuity of the Catalogue of Life has been ensured by the steady work of its Executive Editor Dr Yuri Roskov who has now been with the project for more than a decade. Yuri continues to bring ideas that help to complete the Catalogue yet remains strict about the quality of content. Currently the i4Life team at Reading spans six nationalities each bringing their personal views to development of Catalogue of Life.  At the end of the i4Life project the day-to-day running and management of Catalogue of Life will be transferred to Naturalis in the Netherlands who have committed salaries and resource to running Catalogue of Life for the next five years, as the first host in a rolling five year programme allowing all appropriate organisations to have the opportunity to care for and build this indispensable resource. The process of building the Catalogue of Life will never be completed because thousands of new species of life are discovered and named every year. However, we expect the original target of 1.9m species to be reached by the end of the decade if we continue to add species at the current rate.  

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