27 Nov 2009 IDENTIFICATIONS
An email arrived while I was in Cambodia, with some final IDs from Matthew Shaw, the Supervisor of the Inquiry Centre at the Queensland Museum. I have sent several emails with requests for species identification in recent months, particularly for the new Gallery pages, with EOL in mind [The Encyclopedia of Life] www.eol.org. I have been wary from the outset about being able to become a Content Partner. We have to upload our website content as an XML file to the EOL website. I have been in touch with a local IT expert and am still waiting for his advice on whether this can be done at an affordable price. Meanwhile, Matthew pointed out some of the constraints the Museum has in handling enquiries like mine. It is worth quoting extensively from his email, which struck me as very fair-minded.
DIFFICULTIES WITH IDENTIFICATION
Correspondence with Matthew Shaw, the Supervisor of the Inquiry Centre at the Queensland Museum. I spoke to him on 6 January 2010 and he gave me permission to quote from his email.
<from Matthew Shaw>
Thanks for your queries on identifications. We pride ourselves on our ability to provide identifications and we enjoy helping others to learn how to identify animals too. We have spent some time on trying to get answers for your last set of questions but I do need to let you know about some issues we have. Actually I’m not at all sure if I need to mention anything to you (?), but if we have given you the impression that we can provide genus-level or better identifications for lots more invertebrates, then I do.
We don’t have the resources to do large numbers of identifications
We have limited numbers of staff. We do not have experts for all groups of invertebrates at the QM. We have had to access expertise from retired and interstate experts in order to get the identifications we have. In fact some of the identifications we have provided are from the top experts. Generally however we are reluctant to recruit such people except when necessary for research or when obviously very important purposes (eg quarantine intercepts). We don’t have time to investigate complex questions posed by photos or specimens which is another constraint on our ability to assist with queries.
These are some of the reasons that family-level identification is actually a fair achievement, especially from photographs of immatures. Some groups such as the shield bug have lots of similar-looking genera. Here is a great resource to inform you about this diversity:
We take names seriously
Although the large number of invertebrate images along with their names on the internet can give the illusion that most invertebrate species are named and identifiable this is far from the case. For instance it is estimated that only one third of Australia's insects are named. Although we often give out suggested names (we have little choice other to say the animal is unidentifiable), we are more conservative when these names are being published (eg on a website) because this can lead to a proliferation of misinformation.
We can’t provide definitive identifications from photos. Photo identifications are nearly always provisional. Invertebrate identification most often requires specimens.
You are charging money for animal images on your website
Normally this would mean that we charge you for identifications too. I’ll assume you are not making megabucks from your site so we’ll ignore that for now.
The Museum’s difficulties with identification are apparently part of a worldwide problem; namely a shortage of taxonomists. Here is my reply, dated 30 November:
Many thanks for your most informative and fair-minded email. Needless to say, I greatly appreciate the help I have received from the QM with species identification and the lengths to which you have gone to aid me. I appreciate the difficulties of identifying species from photos (in my case, frames from video footage) and that identification may only be indicative.
I have only sold a small amount of product from my website and am in the process of minimizing its marketing function to make it overwhelmingly a source of information.
I live in hope of having filmed moth or fungi species unknown to science, but that may never be established purely from video footage.