The Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification and cost-effective identification of North American arthropods
“… in the ideal world any insect should be as readily identifiable as lady beetles and butterflies are today. Identification costs would be uniformly low if, for example, there was a central web site with links to user-friendly, richly illustrated, authoritative, regional keys for all adequately known insects. Instead of asking what it should cost to have individual insect species identified again and again, we should be addressing the costs of developing the tools needed to make those individual identifications simple and accurate.” (Marshall, 2003. The real costs of insect identification. Newsletter of the Biological Survey of Canada (Terrestrial Arthropods) 22(1): 15-18.
Although most of the World’s arthropod species remain undescribed and thus unidentifiable, generations of arthropod taxonomists have done a relatively thorough job of documenting the North American fauna. Most arthropod species of at least eastern North America, and virtually all North American members of larger and better known arthropod taxa, have been formally described and named. Despite this relatively advanced state of taxonomic knowledge, most North American arthropods remain functionally unidentifiable except by specialists equipped with libraries, reference collections, and specialized tools. This gap between the completion of a taxonomic infrastructure and its translation into a generally available form is a historical artifact reflecting the cost and difficulty of generating widely accessible identification tools in a pre-digital era. Up until very recently relatively few taxonomists were in a position to produce and reproduce adequate images of all the taxa and characters included in their descriptions and keys. Furthermore, relatively few of those taxonomists able to assemble adequate image libraries could afford to publish them. Inclusion of even a few color images in printed publications was (and is) prohibitively expensive and would in any case be available only to a relatively select readership.
This situation has changed abruptly over the past few years. Digital photography, even of small structures and specimens, is easy to master and relatively inexpensive. More importantly, the Web now provides a vehicle for efficient, swift and inexpensive distribution of image-rich products to a much wider audience than could ever be reached with print publications. Newly published taxonomies, especially those appearing in digitally distributed journals, such as Zootaxa, promise to be much more accessible and user-friendly than paper taxonomic publications of the past. In fact, just as no taxonomic revision of the past few decades was complete without the inclusion of a dichotomous key, no major taxonomic treatment today should be considered complete without the inclusion of, or parallel web posting of, a comprehensively illustrated digital key. CJAI welcomes the publication of such keys based on new taxonomic work, but relatively few newly published taxonomies deal primarily with the well-known North American fauna. The important task of rendering the North American arthropod fauna identifiable demands a return to past taxonomies, and those with the necessary specialized taxonomic expertise now face both a responsibility and a great opportunity to “complete” that past taxonomic work by making previously named species accessible through web publication of reviews including photographically enhanced digital keys.
The papers published in CJAI so far demonstrate that this approach can remove the “taxonomic impediment” to the identification of most previously described species, while at the same time flagging and circumscribing problems that still need to be resolved, such as cryptic species complexes or undescribed species. Most, if not all, taxonomists have invested large parts of their professional lives familiarizing themselves with their chosen taxa, and most can easily identify species that fall into their areas of expertise. This expertise can now be easily translated into identification tools for others, and every North American arthropod taxonomist should be availing themselves of this opportunity.
The Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification is a fully refereed journal and it is now developing into a significant source of expert-authored taxonomic reviews and associated digital identification tools. It is becoming a cost-effective and universally available tool for rapid arthropod identification, meeting user demand while providing authors with a unique opportunity to contribute to a growing body of digital identification tools by sharing their regional taxonomic expertise. We need your help to make the CJAI a major source of authoritative reviews and keys to a wide range of arthropods from North America and beyond.