Brian Fisher, curator of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences, has such enthusiasm for ants, he can make you feel guilty over spraying the little devils in your kitchen. His entomological evangelism extends to his leadership of AntWeb
AntWeb's graphically rich Web site opens its collection – tens of thousands of specimens strong – to both the research community and the general public. That makes AntWeb an interesting visit for anyone with anyone with an entymological bent. But what makes AntWeb unique among life science databases is its integration with Google Earth (GE), a freely available software tool from search goliath Google
GE presents a three-dimensional satellite view of Earth. The image is scaleable, allowing users to zoom from a hemisphere-wide view down to an individual building. GE also incorporates "pushpins" that flag pop-up text – for instance, providing a business' name, address, and phone number – and it allows the creation of fly-throughs and animations, says Nathan Torkington, an editor at technology publisher O'Reilly Media of Sebastopol, Calif.
More importantly, researchers can overlay their own specimen data onto the map, as Fisher did with ant specimens. "It works on any geo-reference specimen data," says Fisher. "You can make the data live from various sources to be produced simultaneously on a map that anybody else can see on the Web."
Fisher recommends GE as a way for both the public and remote colleagues to contribute to geographically based research projects. John T. Longino of Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash., studies ants in Costa Rica; he has provided 30,000 specimen records to upload to AntWeb. "If I can zoom in, I get just the area I want, and see individual pushpins of where the ants are," says Longino. "To see the distribution of species at any spatial scale is just fabulous."
Scientists can design a GE section on a full-blown Web site such as AntWeb, or just create a network file on GE, which could be advertised to other researchers through mailing lists. Because GE is a public repository, users can see not only their own data, but also data that other researchers may have added.
Fisher's own work involves a biodiversity project on Madagascar. (He's named a species of Madagascar ant
Torkington cautions that GE is not a computational or analytical tool; rather, it is simply a way to visualize geographic data. In that respect, however, it can aid analysis, since a graphical interface makes the data much easier to grasp, especially by the general public. Ecologists and government field biologists may find GE especially useful for public demonstrations of concepts such as species distribution. However, GE contains only current images, so researchers seeking to show temporal comparisons, such as habitat loss, will need to upload images from other archives, says Torkington.