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The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN)

Principal Investigators: Brian J. Enquist, Richard Condit, Robert K. Peet, Barbara Thiers and Mark Schildhauer

Ecosystems change naturally as well as due to human intervention. Species ranges expand and contract, and some species become extinct. Sometimes these changes fundamentally impact the diversity and function of local communities. Documenting large shifts in species' abundance and ranges requires data from entire biogeographic provinces. Most datasets, however, originate from individual researchers and cover local scales. These efforts represent only a small part of the full evidence which could be brought to bear upon any given research question. If we could combine the millions of vegetation plots, botanical inventories, and specimens collected since the birth of plant ecology in the late 1800s, we would have an enormous baseline database for addressing questions on plant diversity and distributions that have not been addressed before.

With seed funding from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), the BIEN team is working to assemble a demonstration project that includes most of the premier plant biodiversity databases for the Americas (sources listed below). By the end of 2011 we will have produced a single resource giving species names, locations, and often abundances, for about 25 million species occurrence records. Our ultimate goal is to unite an ever-growing pool of plant distributional data with information on plant co-occurrence, ecology, traits and phylogeny. This requires that we address the fundamental problem of comparative research at iPlant - the taxonomic impediment. We find that even in the most reliable sources, when taxonomic data are reported in the literature, more than 15% of Latin binomials are either misspelled or are ambiguous, and many more are out of date. Unfortunately, for plant trait and ecological field data, error and ambiguity approaches 25 to 35 %. This taxonomic resolution problem is perhaps the largest barrier remaining to conducting comparative biodiversity science. A system for taxonomic disambiguation is critical and central for data integration.

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