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MARINE BIOLOGY meets INFORMATION TECHNOLGY – and a new era in marine biology has begun

Marine biologists and information technologists launch new inter-disciplinary research area called "ocean biodiversity informatics"
The publication of a special Theme Section of 9 papers in the prestigious international marine science journal Marine Ecology Progress Series marks the official recognition of a new inter-disciplinary area of research. Marine biologists are using the latest online information technologies to share, map, analyse and model data from many different sources to reveal global patterns in marine species. Papers in the special publication provide examples of how ocean biodiversity informatics benefits research on whales, seals, sea birds, sea turtles, fisheries, anemone fish and their host anemones, and deep-sea life.

Thinking big

‘Ocean Biodiversity Informatics’ (OBI) heralds a new era in biological research and management that is revolutionising the way we approach marine biodiversity research. OBI uses computer technologies to manage marine biodiversity information; capturing, storing, searching for, retrieving, visualising, mapping, modelling, analyses and publishing data allowing more users greater access to more data and information faster than ever before. The global nature of phenomena such as climate change, over-fishing, and other changes in ecosystems, would not have been recognised had it not been for informatics-aided analyses.

The thought alone of data mining and exploration on a global scale is enough to set the hearts of marine scientists fluttering across the world, as marine biology embraces the computer age. Access to global data through OBI will allow for worldwide gap analysis resulting in new perspectives on current research, the promotion of collaborations between research groups and real data sets for teaching purposes, to mention just a few of the potential benefits. “OBI is an initiative of the 21st century and will make conventional marine biodiversity research more dynamic and comprehensive, with a range of constantly evolving online tools” say Mark J. Costello and Edward Van Berghe in a paper to be published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Culture change

Data on marine species and their environment (be it regional or on a global scale) is the ‘fuel’ on which OBI operates and therefore compliments the traditional disciplines of taxonomy, ecology and biogeography. However, many scientists are ignoring pleas from international scientific organisations, including the International Council for Science, to make their data public. The irony is that most data collections are paid for, directly or indirectly, by public funds. Taxonomists have led the way with regard to public accessibility of data where the expected practice is to lodge type specimens in museums for the common good. It is suggested that there should be a protocol for scientists where ecological data would be made available in a similar way. OBI will make more data available to more people more quickly than ever before, including repatriation of data and information collected in Developing Countries.

According to Mark Costello of the University of Auckland (New Zealand), for OBI to succeed a change in biological science culture to one of open-access to primary data is essential. Also, a greater recognition of the value of such data publications by the scientific community, including publishers, funding agencies and employers is vital commented Edward Vanden Berghe of the Flanders Marine Institute (Belgium). This change in culture is currently underway.

Fit for purpose

One of the most challenging aspects of any informatics system is the quality assurance. This is particularly important when you consider all the possible uses to which data can be put, and the number of steps from the original point of data collection to the end use. However a data or information system is designed, its continuity and development depend on support from the scientific community. This community includes contributors, evaluators of funding applications, users and science policy makers.

The flagship OBI programme is the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (, already publishing almost 10 million location records for 61,000 marine species from a global network of over 100 databases. OBIS is the data system for the Census of Marine Life, the largest ever global marine biology discovery programme (

Mark Costello | alfa
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