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Exploring historical trends using taxonomic name metadata

Indra Neil Sarkar*, Ryan Schenk and Catherine N Norton

Author Affiliations

MBLWHOI Library, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:144  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-144

Published: 13 May 2008

Abstract

Background

Authority and year information have been attached to taxonomic names since Linnaean times. The systematic structure of taxonomic nomenclature facilitates the ability to develop tools that can be used to explore historical trends that may be associated with taxonomy.

Results

From the over 10.7 million taxonomic names that are part of the uBio system [4], approximately 3 million names were identified to have taxonomic authority information from the years 1750 to 2004. A pipe-delimited file was then generated, organized according to a Linnaean hierarchy and by years from 1750 to 2004, and imported into an Excel workbook. A series of macros were developed to create an Excel-based tool and a complementary Web site to explore the taxonomic data. A cursory and speculative analysis of the data reveals observable trends that may be attributable to significant events that are of both taxonomic (e.g., publishing of key monographs) and societal importance (e.g., world wars). The findings also help quantify the number of taxonomic descriptions that may be made available through digitization initiatives.

Conclusion

Temporal organization of taxonomic data can be used to identify interesting biological epochs relative to historically significant events and ongoing efforts. We have developed an Excel workbook and complementary Web site that enables one to explore taxonomic trends for Linnaean taxonomic groupings, from Kingdoms to Families.