Research feature . . .
DATABASE PUTS AN ANT'S WORLD AT RESEARCHERS' FINGERTIPS
by Holly Wagner
More than 11,000 ant species reside in Norm Johnson's insect lab.
The insects aren't relegated to stick pins and Styrofoam. Instead, each species occupies a minute bit of a space in a database called Antbase, an effort to catalog all known species of ants. The project is spearheaded by Norman Johnson, the director of Ohio State's insect collection and a professor of entomology.
Antbase houses all sorts of information on ants and other insects in the order Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and wasps. Scientists all over the world can visit individual species whenever they like.
The insect clearinghouse has the potential to solve much strife and frustration for entomologists eager to quickly find all available information on a particular variety of ant.
"Say an entomologist in Costa Rica finds an ant he's never seen before," said Johnson, who is an expert on parasitic wasps. "He can hike back to his research station and search the website for info on that particular species."
As Antbase grows, entomologists will be able to curb the time they spend describing already-identified species. Until now, such scientists could either scour libraries far and wide for information on a particular insect, or describe it themselves and risk repeating information already out there.
Johnson and his colleagues scoured the entomology literature, adding everything they could find about individual species to the database. Getting information on a particular ant is easy, as long as the user knows the insect's name.
"A name is an insect's social security number - it's the only way we can get at the information in the collection here as well as the literature out there," Johnson said. Most insects in the database are listed under their respective scientific names, although a few common names, such as fire ant, are also included.
Although Johnson said he and his Antbase colleagues are finally caught up with adding to the database all the published literature that they could find on known ant species, their work certainly hasn't stopped. Researchers estimate that Hymenoptera contains as many as 115,000 species.
"That's roughly 10 percent of all known life on earth - including plants, animals, fungi and microbes," said Johnson, who collaborated with scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in developing Antbase. The project won't necessarily stop with Hymenoptera, either. "We can expand it as far as we dare," he said.
The scientists began gathering information for Antbase about four years ago, when they decided that entomologists needed a better way to share knowledge.
"We wanted to get the information out of the storage cabinets and into the hands of the people that could use it," Johnson said. Every specimen in the database, which went online in 2000, has at least some information on where and when it was collected, and by whom.
The database isn't only for professional entomologists; anyone can access the information. But it is a tool that insect experts can use to work more efficiently.
"Every generation of researcher typically gathers a small collection of the important entomology papers," Johnson said. "These collections take years to build. When the researcher dies, that information usually gets lost.
"It's time for entomologists to stop reinventing the wheel, and help the field progress by building on what's already been done."
Say the entomologist in Costa Rica does find an ant he's never seen. It could be a newly discovered species. Or he may find it described on Antbase, only to discover that it's an invasive species - a signal that something may be awry in that particular ecosystem.
"Ants are bioindicators," Johnson said. "Their presence or absence may say a great deal about the health of an ecosystem."
Contact: Norman Johnson, (614) 292-6595; email@example.com