Integrating the Paleobiology Database (PaleoDB) into our taxonomy workflow

In the original Phenoscape project, our focus was on asking comparative questions regarding living taxa. Although we added fossil taxa to the Teleost Taxonomy Ontology (TTO) when our publications included them, we had no general need to add fossil taxa to the contemporary groups provided by the Catalog of Fishes.   However, in our renewal, the focus has both expanded taxonomically (to all vertebrates) and narrowed to the evolution of fins and limbs.   The evolution of limbs from fins occurred over 300 million years ago, meaning the morphological data for this transition exists only in the fossil record.  Therefore, including fossil data and taxonomy has become essential.

These fossil taxa are not available in the major online sources of names, whether taxon-specific, such as Catalog of Fishes, or general such as Catalog of Life or the NCBI taxonomy. Although NCBI includes some fossil taxa, taxa are only included when a related molecular sequence is submitted, which will never be the case for the vast majority of fossil taxa. These latter taxa will only ever be represented as morphological remains.

This need for fossil data, along with the absence of names from recognized sources, requires us to either add names (and hopefully plausible taxonomy) as curators encounter them in papers, or find an alternative source for names of fossil taxa. Although we have and will continue to add fossil taxa to our taxonomy, we do not, and did not intend to become a name or taxonomy authority in our own right.  In light of the strengths and weaknesses of the Phenoscape team allying with a recognized source of fossil taxonomy seems the best option.

The Paleobiology database also called PaleoDB or simply PBDB is an online repository covering a wide range of paleontological data across all taxa represented in the fossil record. These data include names as well as taxonomic opinions appearing in paleontology publications. These data are available and queryable on the PBDB website and are also available for bulk download. As part of developing the Vertebrate Taxonomy Ontology (VTO), an expansion of the TTO to cover all vertebrates and several chordate groups of interest, I have implemented a tool that adds the content of these bulk downloads to a taxonomy ontology. The process of updating from PBDB was designed to minimize disruption to the existing taxonomy by only adding new taxa from PBDB along with whatever taxonomic lineage is required to link each new taxon to a taxon already known to the existing taxonomy. This way, updating from PBDB does not disrupt any existing taxonomic hierarchy we have either incorporated from other resources or were the result of prior curators’ efforts.

However, no taxonomic resource is ever complete. As our term of curators annotate publications, they are encountering fossil taxa unknown to PBDB, and have begun contributing the publication and taxonomy information back to the PBDB. John Alroy and the PBDB board have accepted several project members as authorizers and enterers of data into the PBDB. This allows us to give back to the PBDB as well as simplify the process of adding fossil taxa to our vertebrate taxonomy. We have developed a workflow where a curator can enter publications, names, and taxonomic opinions directly into the PBDB. This immediately makes our additions visible to a wider community and the opportunity to engage expertise we may not have known existed. Subsequent PBDB bulk downloads will include these new names and reflect any changes to the taxonomic opinions entered during curation. These will then be added to the next update of the VTO.

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