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Uncommon System for Naming Species Answers Common Needóand Itís on the Internet

November 9, 1998

Several years ago, six federal agencies started working together to foster and modernize a system for finding the names of nature's organisms. Not surprisingly, each partnering agency had a mission to inventory, monitor, research and/or manage biological resources ... which created a widespread need for a vocabulary shared through taxonomy, the science of describing, naming, and classifying plants and animals.

Taxonomy may not inspire the same wide-eyed wonder thatís routine among those who, letís say, monitor whales or track wolves. Nevertheless, the importance of taxonomy to biology and biologists is fundamental since it provides the foundation for understanding and integrating the similarities and differences among the worldís organisms, both living and extinct. As the Chinese proverb says, wisdom begins by calling things by their right names. The scientific names of organisms are the framework to which we can connect or integrate all biological information.

Integrated Taxonomic Information System Is on the Web for All to Use

The Integrated Taxonomic Information System the product of this interagency effort -- is a readily accessible, scientifically credible, standardized source for scientific names and synonyms (as well as common names) of organisms in North America and its adjacent waters. The system also offers information on the native or non-native origin and general distribution of these biological species. Accessible 24 hours a day via the World Wide Web, ITIS uses state-of-the-art technology to provide one-stop shopping for taxonomic information.

There is no other comparable single source available in the world.

The partnering agencies in this ongoing undertaking are the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanographic Data Center), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Agricultural Research Service, and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Hammer Award to ITIS

In April 1998, the ITIS agencies received one of Vice President Gore's Hammer Awards LINK>LINK, for bringing ITIS from concept to reality. (The Hammer Award is the Vice President's special recognition for teams who have made significant contributions toward improving government's service to the American people).

Working in a unique partnership among federal agencies and the world taxonomic community, the ITIS partnership re-engineered, both scientifically and technologically, an outdated simple text file (the NODC Taxonomy File) created more than twenty years ago. The ITIS system brought contemporary technology, rigor, and scientific credibility to bear in creating a new, comprehensive online database.

Leaders of the award-winning interagency team include Gary Waggoner and Roy McDiarmid of the USGS, Barbara Lamborne and Steve Young with EPA, Scott Peterson and Wendall Oaks from the NRCS, and Bruce Collette and Linda Stathoplos of NOAA.

Scientists and resource managers are making a major effort to inventory plants and animals so there is a reliable measure of existing populations. "The need," said Lamborne, "is to be able to document changes factually, not simply through speculation and guesswork. Fundamental to this process is standardized terminology through which we can identify, describe, and name what we are discussing."

"Taxonomy has an honored history in science," McDiarmid said, "but the time had come to make this technical specialty more accessible to a broad public and scientific audience. Weíre proud weíve been able to accomplish all that we have, and we believe it will make an important contribution in understanding the array of life forms that share the globe with us. Questions of taxonomy will help us define what is native and what has invaded and how numerous each are."

"Applying the ITIS system," said Peterson, "can help both crop and stock farmers identify hazards to their fields, the fishing industry to define the population dynamics of commercial species, and environmental managers to assess the health of natural systems."

Other Applications

Some other ITIS applications include:

* The USGSís National Water-Quality Assessment Program uses ITIS on a regular basis to accurately name, cite, and classify the organisms collected in its national surface water monitoring program activities.

* ITIS is used as the nomenclatural standard for plant names that is being used to map the vegetation of over 250 national parks through the National Park Service/USGS National Vegetation Mapping Program.

* The plant names contained within ITIS are used in over 3,000 counties by NRCS field offices and county extension agents as the standard reference when doing conservation work with the public.

* The EPA uses ITIS as its national reference for scientific names in its many biological inventory and monitoring programs and activities. They encourage their State cooperators to use ITIS as the nomenclatural standard to report scientific names of organisms collected and identified and reported to EPA in State level monitoring activities.

* University and consulting scientists use ITIS to verify scientific names in journal articles and technical reports that they are writing, as well as in preparing class lectures.

*The Fish and Wildlife Information Exchange, which represents State fish and wildlife agencies across the country, is incorporating ITIS into a Web-based information system that, for the first time, links fish and wildlife databases across many states, using ITIS as the species name cross-reference.

International Support

More recently, international support and endorsement for ITIS came from Agriculture-Canada, CONABIO (Mexico), and the CODATA-sponsored Species 2000 Program. Members of the general public are increasingly interested in developing "checklists" of the plants and animals they observe in their communities. Today, more than ever before, print and electronic journalists are finding a growing market for natural history and environmental articles, which require accurate biological information.

"ITIS," said Waggoner, "is a grand new tool in the arsenal of environmental research, and for the first time is enabling the scientific community, resource managers, and the general public to have a common vocabulary of species at their fingertips in an online database. It is a deceptively simple notion. All we're aiming for is a unified way of naming the ëthingsí of nature. Good science depends on every party in a discussion getting the message right."


Gary Waggoner, U.S. Geological Survey


Phone: 303/202-4222