Why do we need NZOR?
New Zealand’s status as one of the world’s biological hot-spots and our economic reliance on biological industries requires that we have the best available information on organisms. This includes information on the ~100,000 described species which are known to occur in New Zealand and the 1.6 million described species which don't occur here and we don’t want coming across our borders.
Fundamental information provided by NZOR is needed to address basic questions like...
- Is this organism present in New Zealand or not?
- What do we already know about this organism?
- What other names has it been (or is) known by?
- Is it a threat, perhaps a potential pest, pathogen or invasive species?
- Is it endangered, either overseas or here?
- How do I recognise it?
- Where does it live?
- How can I manage it?
NZOR data is the starting point for addressing these questions. Querying the NZOR database does not provide the answers to all the questions listed above, but facilitates a meaningful search for those answers in other resources, such as institutional databases and information resources. You may be disappointed about the breadth of data covered by NZOR but remember its purpose is to provide a national standard data-set which can be used as the basis of building more complex services.
So why can’t we just Google the name? Why do we need NZOR to provide a standard to help us search? The simple reason is that one organism can be known by multiple names, and the same name can apply to multiple organisms. It’s like trying to use a map to navigate to a named location when the same place can be known by multiple names, and the same place-name occurs in different parts of the map. The problem is compounded by the fact that names change over time, and in certain groups the recent revolution in molecular analysis means that large numbers of names are changing frequently as knowledge of their evolutionary history becomes clearer. As a consequence, using the map analogy, it's very easy to get lost. A simple downloaded list of names is not enough. A list needs to incorporate the linkages between names and needs to be continuously updated. The NZOR infrastructure provides that service. A wrong decision based on inadequate information could have significant economic implications for New Zealand. Of course NZOR content can only be as good as the data entering the network, and data quality remains variable in many taxonomic groups.
Why do we have a one organism-many names issue?
The issue relates to the science of taxonomy and biological nomenclature - the naming of organisms. The father of taxonomy was Carl Linnaeus who laid the foundations and formulated the protocols back in the 1750s. We still use a system based on the same protocols today. Linnaeus published catalogues applying formal names to all the living things known to him at that time. Linnaeus’ catalogues of names, called Species Plantarum and the Systema Naturae, were the first and last time there has ever been a complete global catalogue of named organisms. Those formal scientific names were binomials consisting of a genus name combined with a species name. Thus humans were given the scientific name Homo sapiens. It was a revolution, prior to Linnaeus the ‘name’ of an organism was more like a description and could be an entire paragraph. Linnaeus created a short-hand way of referring to an organism, and his short-hand caught on fast. His ideas spread rapidly and biologists described ever increasing numbers of new organisms. However, there has always been an information problem since frequently the same organism was named multiple times by different biologists unaware of the work of others. In addition, over time our understanding of the evolutionary relationships between organisms has changed and improved, and this process may also lead to changes in the scientific binomials. And sometimes biologists got it wrong and misidentified species. In addition to the multiplicity of interconnected scientific names we also have the issue that organisms are known by vernacular (common) names which exist in a variety of languages. The relationship between vernacular names and organisms is also not simple, for example the 'Robin' is a common name given to entirely different species in Europe, North America and New Zealand.
250 years after Linnaeus we now have an estimated 1.6 million described species, but perhaps as many as 3 or 4 times the number of different scientific names (synonyms) applied to those species (never mind vernacular names in various languages). Nobody knows for sure how many have been described in the globally scattered literature and, surprisingly, it is only in recent times there has been a coordinated effort to re-create the modern digital equivalent of Linnaeus’ catalogues (The Catalogue of Life). The NZOR data represents our contribution to that global effort. It is not complete, it is not perfect, nor is it ever likely to be. It is however the best map we have and a considerable improvement over no map at all.
Why not use Wikipedia/Wikispecies or other online sources?
A reasonable question is why should anybody use NZOR when the data may already be ‘out there’ on the web? Is there already a ‘one stop shop’ for such data on New Zealand species with data-services that can be linked into end-user information management systems? The short answer is no.
NZOR data providers include the national agencies and institutes with a mandate to carry out research, create and curate such data (but see data quality, use and attribution). Within these organisations the data is not managed using environments like Wikipedia or Wikispecies, although the information generated by the taxonomists may ultimately find its way there.
Environments like Wikipedia/Wikispecies do not currently provide adequately structured data to deliver the specific range of digital services required by our end-users. That may be possible in the future, but currently it is not.
NZOR is part of a global infrastructure and can receive from, and provide data to, international initiatives such as the Catalogue of Life and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. NZOR works with these networks by employing standards developed by the TDWG Biodiversity Standards organisation.