Sunday, October 12, 2008

Long Tail of Biodiversity

At last count on the World Spider Catalog, there are 4345 species in the spider family Linyphiidae. This is second only to the jumping spiders. The latter are primarily tropical and subtropical, but linyphiids are predominantly found in the northern hemisphere, where are coincidentally found most of the world's arachnid systematists. And, of course, there's very little accessible information on most of these species either in print or on the web. A few notable exceptions are Tanasevitch's Linypiid Spiders of the World, which contains flat lists of names organized in various ways and the ever popular BugGuide gallery (few of which identified to species). There is a smattering of other resources out there, but they are all hard to find. Both the Tree of Life and the Encyclopedia of Life have the equivalent of stub pages so neither of these are particularly helpful.

A recent unlocking of these hidden gems is underway by Nina Sandlin, an Associate of Zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago. She has been building LinEpig, an photo gallery of linyphiid epigyna on Picasa Web Albums. Like most other online work on arachnids, LinEpig is built with love for the organisms and no budget (correct me if I'm wrong Nina!). While taking images of the epigyna, Nina graciously shared the habitus images with the Nearctic Spider Database. While in Chicago recently, I chatted with Nina about Picasa. While it comes close to what she wanted, it fell short in a number of areas. The most important in my opinion is findability. Sure, she can tag her images with names, but her gallery is poorly exposed on Google and other search engines. However, there are some features in Picasa that make it attractive. It is relatively easy to upload, manage, and geotag - though the latter could evidently use text boxes if one already has coordinates on hand. Most importantly, the interface is clean, responsive and uncluttered.

Now the long tail...

Prior to Nina's efforts, there was very little (if any) linyphiid imagery on the web, especially the specialized images of the epigyna, which are a lot more useful than the habitus images. If you've seen one linyphiid, you've pretty much seen them all (a few exceptions of course). They are remarkably similar in shape & size, but their sexual characters, especially the male's, are dramatically different. The big biodiversity aggregators like the Encyclopedia of Life have positioned themselves to present low hanging fruit. That is, show the furry charismatic megafauna (or fish) because there are many resources serving this sort of content. But, why? Wouldn't it make sense to instead provide better and more useful tools for folks like Nina to create and organize content for which there is either nothing or very little available elsewhere? Let's hope that in time, LifeDesk will provide a ladder for consumers of content generated there to reach out to the furthest branches and leaves where are found all the curiosities. But first, it'll have to contain tools and functionality useful for folks like Nina and for others to jump in and give her a hand.


kschnei said...

Thanks for this interesting and informative post, David! I'm very glad to hear that someone is willing to put so much work into this project - thanks, Nina!!

google said...

Ah, Ken was here first. :-)

One note: with Picasa one must distinguish between the web gallery and the photo management/editing software, although some comments apply to both.

I hope that David will also be able to add Nadine's epigynum images to the Database.


google said...

Oops, I meant to write "Nina" -- that's an embarrassing slip.