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eMonocot – a web taxonomic resource for plants of new scale and depth

Scientists at Kew, the Natural History Museum and Oxford University have produced the most ambitious e-taxonomic portal ever built for plants, delivering baseline information for all 70,000 monocotyledons (20% of all flowering plants).
The eMonocot portal showing part of the ‘species page’ content for Colchicum lingulatum.

A flagship biodiversity informatics project

Target 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation is the production of an online flora of all known plants. To achieve this target, RBG Kew and its partners are engaged in novel initiatives in biodiversity informatics. This emerging e-science is focused on creating access to biodiversity data, including taxonomic information, which is often out of reach for many potential users.

Since 2010, Kew has led a flagship biodiversity informatics project, eMonocot, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum (London) and Oxford University. The project, funded by a three-year consortium grant from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, has produced a web taxonomic resource of unprecedented scale for plants, delivering baseline information for all 70,000 monocotyledons (20% of all flowering plants). The overarching aim of eMonocot is to enable expert taxonomic communities to collaborate and deliver their specialist knowledge to a broad range of users, especially biodiversity scientists.

Gathering content

Kew’s primary roles have been gathering content for taxa (including content from existing web taxonomic resources: CATE Araceae, Palmweb, Grassbase) and enabling contributions from taxonomic communities. The Natural History Museum has led community engagement through providing scratchpads, free websites that allow researchers to manage, share and publish taxonomic data online. Scratchpads have experienced widespread uptake (c. 600 scratchpads, c. 7,000 active users), and over 30 eMonocot scratchpads have been created. Involvement in and ownership of the scratchpads by expert community members are a vital elements of the sustainability of eMonocot.

The eMonocot portal

eMonocot aggregates the data from these taxonomic web resources and scratchpads and delivers it through a portal structured around a nomenclatural backbone provided by the World Checklist of Monocotyledons. The portal, developed at the University of Oxford, provides identification tools and taxon pages for all monocots, presenting data including habitat, life form, conservation status (where available) and links to DNA sequence data providers.

The eMonocot portal already provides full taxon descriptions for over 20% of accepted monocot taxa, over 8,000 images, phylogenetic trees and 15 keys, including a key to all monocot families. Users can search geographically or add filters to searches to explore the content in novel ways, providing answers to scientific questions in just a few clicks. Results of searches can be easily downloaded or displayed in graphical visualisations. For example, the chart shown below plots the numbers of species in families of Asparagales occurring in African Tropical dry forests; they hold 1,031 orchid species.

Graph plotting numbers of species in families of Asparagales occurring in African Tropical dry forests. See a larger image

Towards the Online World Flora

eMonocot provides an excellent model to inform the roadmap for the Online World Flora. It also shows that biodiversity informatics can help to forge new collaborative relationships among taxonomists and with primary users of taxonomic outputs, such as biodiversity scientists and the broader community. The power of the web is yet to be fully harnessed by the taxonomic community, but eMonocot has taken us a step closer towards taxonomy as a truly web-based science.

Item from Dr Paul Wilkin (Head of Alismatids and Lilioids, RBG Kew) and Dr Bill Baker (Interim Assistant Keeper, Systematics, RBG Kew)

Kew Scientist, issue 44

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