Value Added Taxonomy

Drawer of Lyell gastropods
Drawer of Lyell gastropods

Three years ago, one of the Museum’s key strategic aims was to introduce a unified collections management system (CMS) for the scientific collections. Combining data from all the museum collections will allow people to search across all these collections and will also be of enormous benefit in managing activities such as loans, exhibitions, conservation, object entry and exit and movement control, as well as integrating digital imagery.

The CMS chosen was KE EMu, which works very well for natural history collections, particularly in the way that it deals with taxonomy (the classification of organisms). Migration of data and original cataloguing is now well underway, with records for minerals, butterflies and moths and archives all in the new system. The Lyell digitisation will act as a pilot project for the migration of palaeontological data.

The biggest challenge with moving all our collections data to a single system will be to standardise data structures and terminology across the collections, for example taxonomy, localities, people and organisations, and bibliographic references. In this blog post we are going to focus on taxonomy, which is key to the understanding of the palaeontology, zoology and entomology collections.

Image of drawer of pecten shells collected by Charles Lyell
Drawer of pecten shells collected by Charles Lyell

All the collections databases record the genus and species where these can be identified. The higher taxonomy, e.g. kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, has been recorded less consistently. At present, the palaeontology collections use an all-purpose field called Taxonomic Group. This is a mixture of phyla, classes, subclasses, orders and a few other groups, chosen because they were regarded as the most useful search terms.

As a consequence, to find all the molluscs in a database you would need 14 separate search terms (Scaphopoda, Amphineura, Monoplacophora, Gastropoda, Nautiloidea, Ammonoidea, Coleoidea, Cephalopoda (other), Bivalvia, Rostroconchia, Tentaculitida, Cornulitida, Hyolitha, and Mollusca (other)). What KE EMu will offer is a structured way of searching taxonomy at multiple levels, for example simply searching for Mollusca, rather than multiple terms.

Our approach to standardising the taxonomic data has been to build a new hierarchy across the collections, starting at phylum level. Most terms for palaeontology and zoology mapped very easily, but the process raised some interesting questions such as how we deal with the fossils that were previously bundled in the ‘Vendazoa’. Our answer will probably be to class these specimens as incertae sedis and reclassify them if and when the question of their affinities is resolved.

Screenshot of taxonomy fields for entomology in KE EMu CMS
Taxonomy fields in KE EMu CMS
Screenshot of part of taxonomy hierarchy in KE EMu CMS
Part of taxonomy hierarchy in KE EMu CMS

The next step will be to construct the lower levels of the hierarchy down to order level, for example Phylum Mollusca, Class Bivalvia, Order Pectinida. The resources required to determine the family for all our specimens mean that we will need to address this on a project by project basis. For now we are starting to fill in the family and order for all our Lyell material using a combination of the Paleobiology Database and the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. A more specific site that has been particularly useful for Lyell is the Virtual Scientific Collection of French Tertiary Fossils. Gastropods and bivalves make up over 90% of the Lyell Collection, and by the end of the project we hope to have constructed a usable hierarchy down to family level for both these groups. This will involve close work with the Life Collections staff, as we are unlikely to find many reference works that take into account both recent and fossil specimens.

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