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Digital Noah’s Ark

Network integrates data on plants, animals and microorganisms from collections from São Paulo and abroad

When she found that shrub half a meter high, with broad dark green leaves and yellow flowers, botanist Giselda Durigan was surprised. She had never seen that species before, in six years of expeditions through the 1,300 hectares of the Cerrado of the Assis Ecological Station, in the western region of the state of São Paulo. After looking for records of this plant in herbariums, Giselda discovered that she had reencountered the douradinha-falsa (Byrsonima subterranea), regarded as probably extinct in the state – observed for the last time about 30 years ago in Pedregulho, in the state of São Paulo. Typical of open areas where the Cerrado (savanna) is mistaken for pastures, the “douradinha-falsa” hides itself among grasses: it exposes only its thick leaves, and, once a year, from November to December, the bunches of yellow flowers.

Any biologist who intended to study a plant, an animal or a microorganism – not always resulting in the identification of a new species – had until now to follow this same route, with many hours of trekking , or to peregrinate through the collections of the research institutes. It no longer needs to be like that. Since the beginning of this month, the physical characteristics, the biological classification and the area of occurrence, images and reference studies of thousands of species of Brazilian animals, funguses, bacteria and plants, like the “douradinha”, are on the Internet, a few clicks away from anyone, gathered together in (without the www). This is the address of Species Link, a marvelous network of information that integrates national and international databases, developed by the Environmental Information Reference Center (Cria).

The first digital inventory of biodiversity in São Paulo and part of Brazil, Species Link at the moment integrates 38 scientific collections (24 from São Paulo and 14 international ones) of plants, animals and microorganisms from different taxonomic groups, ran by eight teaching and research institutes in the country. Still at the test stage, this network houses information on 350,000 records, as the collection of one species from the field is called. Of this total, which should double in size by the end of 2005, as new data is digitalized, almost 50,000 records come from the Information System of the Biota-FAPESP Program (SinBiota), responsible for the survey of biodiversity and natural resources in São Paulo. This network should grow even more, incorporating data from key collections from other states, like those of the Herbarium of the Rio de Janeiro, which for over a century has been documenting the biological diversity of the Brazilian ecosystems.

This sort of digital Noah’s ark is not going to replace the collections with their own samples of animals and plants, still essential for more detailed comparative studies, but it will facilitate scientific work a lot. Running through the databases gathered in this network, a biologist will be able to discover in minutes, for example, now many piranhas have been recorded in the scientific collections of the state of São Paulo. From one of the most common genera, Serrasalmus, there are 843 records.

“The value of Species Link is inestimable from the scientific point of view, as it brings together at a single address on the Internet information to which access, any other way, would be almost impossible”, comments Vanderlei Perez Canhos, the director president of Cria and the coordinator of Species Link. With this network, Brazil’s scientific institutions are placed in the same group as that of the other countries that have been enjoying similar artifices for at least five years. Species Link also opens the way for the country to participate in a broader project, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), aimed at the construction of a shared structure of data about the planet’s biodiversity.