In the coastal zone of many countries there is a conflict of interest between economic development and the health of the sea; such differences can only be resolved by active coastal zone management. Tropical countries have experienced a massive effort in the studies of pelagic systems and coral reefs but yet the soft sediments which cover the greatest part of the ocean floor remain understudied. This is despite the high biodiversity of the fauna living there, its importance as fish food and its ability to be used as a sentinel for environmental degradation. In Europe and North America routine surveys of this benthic ecosystem are an important and increasingly cost-effective method by which the environmental manager can monitor the pollution status of coastal waters. Unfortunately in much of south-east Asia the shortage of a readily available literature for the identification of many common sea-floor animals inhibits routine biological monitoring.
Project organisers. Left to right Mike Kendall, Peter Garwood, Neil McAleece, Chittima Aryuthaka and Gordon Paterson.
This is largely a reflection of the extreme species richness of the IndoPacific region and the difficulty of publishing the description of new species in the scientific literature. Put simply, it is far too difficult for regional scientists to use traditional methods of species description to keep others in their field informed of those new animals that they frequently encounter. The process of description is so time consuming that a massive taxonomic bottleneck has developed. To break through this we have used the Internet to link researchers in the region together and to give them direct access to specialists. This entailed matching pace with the latest developments in Internet browsers to provide to provide an interactive website which specialist researchers can enter details of any potentially new species that they find and compare them with existing information.
New species entered onto the database will be allotted a provisional name provided by the scientist entering the details. Less experienced workers can gain access to online taxonomic keys. Simply by keying into their computer those features of an animal that they are sure they can see, these novices can be offered a probable identification.
Essentially this scheme is a demonstration of the potential of the Internet for animal identification and as a 3 year project cannot hope to provide full documentation for all the species which might be encountered in a benthic sample from the Gulf of Thailand or the Andaman Sea.
PMBC the site of the first project workshop
We have concentrated our attention on the polychaete worms which dominate benthic communities. To test the system for provisional taxonomy, forms have been provided for 3 species-rich groups of worms, the Spionidae, the Nereidae and the Eunicida. The keys which we have developed aid identification of a polychaete to the level of family in most instances although in some families identifications to genus can be achieved. This project still has a long way to go but we believe that the techniques we have developed have great potential for further development.
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© Except where stated otherwise, the line drawings and diagrams on this site were reproduced by kind permission of Prof J H Day.