Last week I attended a conference ambitiously titled “Global Ant Project synthesis meeting II“. Partly, I went out of curiosity about what this “Global Ant Project” might be. But mostly, I went for the chance to catch up with old myrmecological friends, eavesdrop on the latest ant gossip, and visit Chicago’s fabulous Field Museum of Natural History. How’d it go? Mission accomplished on all counts. You can see my photos of the event here.
It turns out the Global Ant Project (GAP) isn’t really a project, or an organization, or anything in particular. It has no location, no bank account, no charter, no steering committee. It exists because some large bioinformatics projects- especially the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL)– would like the myrmecological community to provide much-needed content to populate their sparse web pages. So these organizations drop a load of money to host events that bring ant biologists together. With luck, all those brains banging ideas around in a small room might cause data to accumulate on the internet in a format that the EoL machines can harvest.
One might think of GAP as the circle of ants that have arrived to a tasty honey bait. Sure, it’s contrived. But GAP is nonetheless an excellent opportunity to hang out and talk shop. To the extent that this leads to increased public data-sharing, EoL gets some shiny new stuff for their site. Win-win.
The meeting’s salient points, in my opinion:
- Antweb is GAP, and GAP is Antweb. Thanks in part to Brian Fisher’s tireless work on antweb over the years, the myrmecological community has the most organized online presence of any group of entomologists. This hasn’t escaped the notice of EoL, of course, which is why we ant folk have become a focal interest of theirs. The meeting reached consensus that building on antweb will be the most productive course of action for storing and sharing ant data. Brian Fisher will retain executive control over the site, but is opening the gates to transform antweb into a more community-run project. Discussion over standards ensued.
- Species versus specimens. A trickier issue than one might think. Antweb uses specimens as its operational units so that data are fundamentally tied to a particular dead ant on a pin. This level of organization suits taxonomists, population geneticists, and others who require a finely-atomized view of the world. But EoL is about species, not specimens. Other applications- like conservation ecology- also treat species as their operational units. How do we scale up from specimens to create species pages for EoL? And perhaps more importantly, can we even be expected to do so when the species-level taxonomy of most ants remains incomplete?
- Who is the audience? There was broad disagreement over the target of GAP’s efforts. Will GAP efforts provide research tools to taxonomists, much as antweb does now? Will GAP serve a public need for information on a layman’s level? Should antweb restructure to better provide data for conservation policy? Are species pages to be written as technical syntheses of the known biology, or as concise abstracts? A solution may lie in having those interested in non-systematic audiences create the relevant content, and antweb will figure out how to incorporate it later.
- The politics of GAP. The GAP group is not a random sampling of myrmecologists. Rather, it’s the same folks behind The Ant Course, give or take a few people at the margins. While the group certainly circumscribes a fair chunk of the world’s myrmecological heavy-hitters, GAP runs a rather tribal risk of alienating the larger community if it presumes to speak for all myrmecology. For instance, little mention was made of similar (though smaller) efforts in Japan and the Iberian Peninsula. Does GAP extend a hand to other networks? Perhaps most seriously, EoL will enforce the taxonomic view’s of GAP’s catalogue committee (essentially, Barry Bolton). GAP can itself provide a consensus opinion, but only among its own members. What of dissenting views outside of GAP? We took as a point of discussion the controversy over Pyramica versus Strumigenys.
Everyone I talked to who attended the first GAP meeting felt that GAP II was more productive. Corrie Moreau, our intrepid host at the Field Museum, heroically extracted commitments from all attendees. In a rare fit of civic-mindedness, for instance, I pledged to start adding natural history data to antweb from my project on Paraguayan ants. Never mind that I’ve already got too much to do. Also, I’m now chairing GAP’s public outreach committee. This, even though GAP doesn’t technically exist, and we never really agreed on what sort of outreach we were doing, and to whom, or how. We’ll likely need another meeting for that!
Nonetheless, I’m happy to have attended. The meeting’s mood was decidedly light, with good-natured banter and evening beer-drinking sessions interspersed with the serious discussion. In spite of lingering disagreements over priorities among the GAP members, it seems clear enough that the ant community will continue to be ahead of the curve in bringing data online.