2000, Annual Reports of the Zoological Institute RAS.


Presentation and use of zoological information in the global Internet network

Andrey L. Lobanov, Mikhail B. Dianov, Sergey G. Medvedev, Vadim E. Panov, Igor S. Smirnov

Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Universitetskaya nab., 1, St. Petersburg, 199034, Russia
 

It is now already clear to everyone that information is becoming a major economic resource, its value comparable to that of mineral resources, forests, etc. The Internet - Global computer information network has the key role in this process. The scale and importance for mankind of this network is huge, and grow at an incredible pace. According to popular polls, on the eve of the 3rd millennium the Internet was mentioned many times as one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century and the 2nd millennium along with the computer, atomic power and space flights.

Numerical characteristics of the Internet are counted in hundreds of millions and billions. Contrary to the general belief that Russia is hopelessly lagging in using the Internet, the most recent estimates suggest that the number of computers connected to the Internet in our country exceeds 5 million and is growing like an avalanche. The Internet is of particular importance in modern science. The different possibilities offered by the Internet - prompt access to a multitude of constantly updated reference systems comprising bibliography, factual data and text information, the possibility to promptly inform the world community of one's own scientific results and promptly obtain colleagues' reviews, participation in Internet conferences, Internet discussions and thematic lists, the convenience of E-mail - increase the efficiency of scientific research to such an extent that abandoning them appears impossible to everyone who has used them at least once. The Internet is particularly important for Russian scientists right now under conditions of strict financial limitations and with an abrupt decline of the acquisition rate in scientific libraries. Apart from the above advantages, the fact that information on the institute as a whole, on scientific achievements, and on projects which are in progress is available in the global network greatly increases scientific prestige of the Institute and serves as the most efficient tool of advertising and making contacts with funding sources.

The administration of the Zoological Institute realizes the importance of the Internet and has done everything possible in providing its staff with this indispensable tool. Owing to the permanent attention of the administration and the efforts of the staff of the Information Group our institute has a powerful server, rapid communication channel and a permanently extended and updated local network, to which dozens of computers have been connected. As a result, the Zoological Institute surpasses by its Internet resources and possibilities other biological institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences and academies of the CIS. However not all scientists on the staff of the Zoological Institute efficiently use the available computer resources.

Web-portal (the current term for large sites) of the Institute has practically not been updated. Its English version contains purely descriptive information on laboratories that has not been updated for five years. The only exception is the recently established modern scientific site of the Kaliningrad Biological Station. The Russian version is empty and therefore the port of the Zoological Institute is not subject to registration in Russian search systems. As a result, even making the query "Zoological Institute" would not allow a Russian language user to find out about the existence of the Web-port of ZIN.

This situation is at variance with the fact that the thematic sites in our site "Group on Aquatic Alien Species" (English language version) and "Fleas, Siphonaptera" (English and Russian versions) have a high world rating and have been included in the most prestigious top lists and catalogues. The Russian language thematic site "Beetles (Coleoptera) and Coleopterists" placed on the Internet at the beginning of 2000 has been included into all of the major search systems of the Russian Internet with 20 to 180 visits per day and is listed among the first one hundred scientific sites of Russia. These, however, are the only sites adequate for the rank and prestige of the Zoological Institute. Such a situation can now be damaging to the institute's reputation and should be improved.

One of our first serious thematic sites is the site dedicated to the study of the order of fleas. It attracts visitors by its thoughtful "irritating" design, excellent photographs and a detailed account of the unique information system on the world's flea fauna of all 1.5 thousand species of the order. This site, owing to its full scale English version, is one of the three sites on this theme that are best known in the world. Its announcement and registration in catalogues of the network were performed on a sufficiently high professional level, and now even an American user searching for information on fleas usually visits our site. The largest world's biomedical information net BIOMEDNET in the USA conferred to it the title "The Site of the Day" in "Beagle Today's Web Picks" and for a whole month an annotation and address of the site remained on that "roll of honour".

 

 

Fig. 1. Home page of the "Fleas (Siphonaptera)" Web-site. (http://www.zin.ru/Animalia/Siphonaptera)

 

It was more difficult to achieve popularity of the site of the group on the study of alien aquatic species. This is currently a central problem, and many dozens of sites throughout the world are dedicated to this issue. The seemingly purely biological problem of invader species necessitated a special large decree signed by the US President Bill Clinton. Tens of millions of dollars will be allocated in the USA for the resolution of this problem. After the decree was issued the number of sites on that problem grew even more rapidly. The team of researchers under the supervision of A.F. Alimov and V.E. Panov succeeded in preparing an informative site arresting visitors' attention. One of its pages displays routes of dispersal of those species that are particularly important for our region. The most detailed data are given for each of the key words on separate pages. Scientific publications on the Internet differ from the traditional ones on paper, because they must include components that would make the pages attractive for casual visitors and also because much attention is given to the design and illustrations. Poor design may repel even professional readers. Therefore in that site even the data base includes figures, and special programs have been developed for creation of illustrative maps. The maps are certainly provided with scientific comments and bibliographic references.

 

 

Fig. 2. Home page of the "RBIC Web-site. (http://www.zin.ru/projects/rbic)

 

We used all the accumulated experience for the creation of a site for the Coleoptera Department of the Laboratory of Insect Taxonomy. The main page is of particular importance in any site - it should be original, easily remembered and its arrangement should be maximally understandable. It would be desirable to place a brief preamble in it. It would be even better to spread some element of the main page to all pages and to retain the same style throughout all pages. In the coleopterological site the Web-master and site designer M.B. Dianov has succeeded in fulfilling all these requirements to a high level. The site, during the first three months of its existence has received dozens of references and all of them begin with praise to its design.

It is planned to create the site in two languages, however up to now only titles of all pages and texts of several key pages have been translated into English. Even in the Russian part about 100 pages are still empty: not all entomologists have yet evaluated the importance of the Internet and only 4 researchers actively participated in the creation of the site. To gain popularity one more purely Internet device has been used here - frequent updating of the site. It has been possible to keep up with the pace that normally is only possible for large teams - on the average 1-2 new pages a day and as many pages considerably enlarged. A visitor who had not seen the site for a week or two will have to read and look at the new material for hours. As a result, we have achieved record figures for a Russian language site: 20-180 visits per day, 2500 visits per 3 months, more than 50 authors from different cities of Russia. The words "Coleoptera" and "coleopterist" figure in all search systems, and by its rating our site is ahead of many others having more attractive titles.

 

 

Fig. 3. Home page of the "Beetles (Coleoptera)" Web-site. (http://www.zin.ru/Animalia/Coleoptera)

 

There is no doubt that the large number of photographs and figures have contributed to the popularity of the site. We obtained photographs not only from our recognized experts V.N. Tanasijtshuk and S.Yu. Kuznetsov, but also from colleagues from other cities. A large part deals with scientific illustrations, including many dozens of figures of beetles performed in many different techniques and genres. The pride and decoration of our site is a unique collection of personal and memorial pages of coleopterists on the staff of the Zoological Institute, our predecessors who passed away some time ago and of a great many of our colleagues from other cities. We have succeeded in collecting nearly one hundred photographs and as many essays. If we fill a few more gaps we will accomplish a complete history of the St. Petersburg school of coleopterology.

The above sites talk about science, but their creation may seem to have to do nothing with science, which is not true. Internet technologies are developing rapidly, zoological information is specific in many respects, and not all problems of its presentation on the Internet have been resolved yet. We are trying to find solutions to some of those problems. We have developed several tools for a more illustrative presentation of hierarchical classifications. One of those is the interactive tree of the classification of beetles. In the left window one can quickly move through the classification turning to its separate branches. In the right window information is demonstrated for the taxon, whose branch is active on the left.

For teaching, or in contrast for a professional user already acquainted with the system it may be more convenient to use another presentation of classification when illustrations are shown at the same time for all taxa, subordinate to the current one. The name of the current taxon and its systematic position is shown in the upper part of the page. Changing the taxon to one of the subordinate ones is done by clicking on one of the images; and transfer to any of the higher taxa is by clicking on the required name above.

The same method can be used for the solution of another zoological problem - the construction of identification keys. For the creation of virtual collections, which in the course of time may in some aspects supplant traditional collections and speed up the process of examination of type specimens from different museums, programs for demonstrating the specimen of animal from all sides are required. It is desirable to perform this with the magnification of the part needed by the user. One method has been developed for this purpose by Austrian scientists. Rotation of the specimen can be stopped in the required position. Further development of this method may allow the user to obtain a sufficiently complete understanding of the specimen.

Animation is often used to present the results of studies of locomotion and other aspects of animals' behaviour. Files of such moving images are large and users of slow channels have to spend considerable time receiving those. Internet channels are becoming increasingly more rapid, and the development of types of image compression will lead to a decrease in file sizes. The elaboration and improvement of ways of creating such animation is also a pressing issue for us.

Internet publications in many respects surpass traditional paper editions and often permit realization of such elements, convenient for the user, which are difficult to imagine in a book. One example is interactive maps. Special programs for their creation and use have been developed by us for the site on alien species. One of the maps shows the location of institutions dealing with this issue, but more frequently such maps are used for presenting distribution ranges of animals. Clicking on the object on the map that is of interest to the user is a kind of question; a reply to the question - the information on the object - appears in a separate window.

In conclusion it is necessary to note once again that the great invention of the 20th century - the Internet - is also of tremendous importance for zoologists. Access to the Internet increases the efficiency of work of our scientists, and the high level of zoological research carried out at our institute should have the place it deserves in the global information network.