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Press release

DAISY, DAISY, give me your answer, do…

The Natural History Museum presents its vision for the future of systematics

A botanist collecting orchids in South America finds what she thinks could be a new species. A child in Belgium sees an unusual butterfly in his garden and a traveller exploring the Amazonian rainforest gets bitten by a strange insect…

Until now there has been no means for any of these people to have their finds accurately identified without taking them to an expert, which can mean going to the other side of the world. But scientists from the Natural History Museum are working on new technology, entitled DAISY (Digital Automated Identification System), which they believe could give anyone in the world the ability to identify any living species almost instantly. The Museum hopes applications based on this technology will be available within the next two years.

Professor Norman MacLeod, Keeper of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, says, 'Only a handful of experts are currently able to identify species in any given group of organisms accurately, and even these experts disagree with each other over aspects of these identifications and can make mistakes. This technology will not replace basic human expertise, but it will give access to that expertise to people in remote locations, where the identifications are often needed most. The implications for medicine and industry could be massive. And, of course, the potential for the research we do at the Natural History Museum is huge as well: if we can identify species more quickly and accurately then we can use this information to focus more on addressing the larger issues of evolution and biodiversity'.

By combining artificial intelligence and computer vision technologies, these new systems will equip computers with virtual collections of authoritatively identified specimens, which the computer can then use to distinguish species from one another. DAISY identifies species by sampling electronic images, digitised sounds or digital representations of DNA sequences. For example, a user could simply photograph a specimen with a mobile phone camera out in the field and the identification could be made in seconds by computer. DAISY can also recognise fossilised specimens, and so can play a major role in helping scientists to piece together the history of life's past as well as its present and future.

With seventy million specimens, the Natural History Museum has one of the world's best natural history collections. A 'library of life', it represents the amazingly diverse range of life on Earth and is the ultimate reference for species identifications. Up to now, the only way of determining identifications has been for specialists to compare unknown specimens with identified specimens from the Museum's collection. This has not only meant there is room for human error, but also that for many people the expertise has been out of reach. The Natural History Museum's scientists and curators want to use the collection to feed information on millions of species into this new technology. Once DAISY has constructed its model, it can be used to identify unknown specimens, and even refer unidentifiable specimens, which could represent a new species, to human specialists for further study.

Prof. MacLeod will present his vision for the automated identification of biological groups in a conference organised by the Natural History Museum and the Systematics Association at the Natural History Museum tomorrow, Friday 19 August 2005. This will be the first time scientists involved with research into this area of technology will come together to share ideas and compare progress. The Museum hopes this will be the beginning of a co-ordinated research programme that will benefit people worldwide. 

Ends

Notes for editors

Winner of the 2004 Large Visitor Attraction of the Year award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. The Museum is committed to encouraging public engagement with science. This has been greatly enhanced by the Darwin Centre, a major new initiative, which offers visitors unique access behind the scenes of the Museum. Phase One of the project opened to the public in 2002 and Phase Two is scheduled to open in 2008.

Systematics is the science of classifying species and identifying the evolutionary relationships between them. The Natural History Museum is one of the world's leading centres for systematics.

The Systematics Association is a UK-based society committed to furthering all aspects of systematic biology. It organises a vigorous programme of international conferences on key themes in systematics, including a series of major biennial conferences launched in 1997. The association also supports a variety of training courses in systematics and awards grants in support of systematics research.

For further information please telephone +44 (0)20 7942 5654 or email press@nhm.ac.uk