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.
Information System Is on the Web for All to Use
The Integrated Taxonomic
Information System http://www.itis.usda.gov/itis-- 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
Hammer Award to ITIS
In April 1998, the
ITIS agencies received one of Vice President Gore's Hammer Awards LINK
http://www.npr.gov/library/awards/hammer/>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
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
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."
Some other ITIS applications
* 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
*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.
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
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.