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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 1


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A high-tech space for marine invertebrates

By Jon Percy

The spineless creatures that have crawled and slithered in obscurity on the seafloor off Canada's East Coast for millions of years have an enthusiastic new public relation's agent. Derek Davis, the retired chief curator of natural history at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, is keen on sharing his life-long passion for these lowly creatures. Derek's campaign received a big boost in January at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) in Dartmouth with the first official "test drive" of his Marine Invertebrate Diversity Initiative (MIDI) Web site.

Derek Davis has long felt the need 
for a web-based marine invertebrate catalog. 
Photo courtesy of Derek Davis.

More than 50 curious scientists, educators, consultants, fishermen and conservationists spent the day learning about and taking this online taxonomic catalog for a spin. They searched for information about species and habitats, compiled and entered data on selected species and debated the strengths, shortcomings and potential applications of the system. The consensus: MIDI is a promising scientific and educational tool whose time has arrived.

J.F. Whiteaves Catalog of Marine Invertebrata of Eastern Canada was the last comprehensive overview of the marine invertebrates in the region. Published in 1901 and long out of print, it includes only a quarter of the estimated 4,000 east coast species. Davis, who received a Visionary Award from the Gulf of Maine Council in 1996, has long recognized the need for a fresh and more accessible revised version. So he turned to the Web and began building an open and evolving catalog that included information from specialists and from the untapped trove of lore and observation scattered through the region's fishing communities. 

Launched just a year ago, MIDI already has 600 animals in its database. Information thus far has been culled from published sources and entered by interns working under contract. Its geographic scope includes the Scotian Shelf, the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine. The site features photographs of the species as well as information about their classification and taxonomic relationships, geographic distributions, life histories and habitat preferences. Lists of references and hot links to other on-line sites lead to a wealth of additional information about each species. 

The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History provided seed money for the project and other partners have added their support, including the Ecology Action Centre, the Integrated Coastal Planning Project at Dalhousie University, the Centre of Geographic Sciences, Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 

Davis felt the project should have a "strong non-governmental drive," so an independent, non-profit MIDI Society was formed to administer the project and oversee its development. Although the initial effort is largely Nova Scotia based, the intent is to eventually engage interest and participation from all around the Gulf of Maine. Davis is encouraging everyone from students to scientists to help develop the site's content. By drawing in a wide range of participants, he hopes to educate users about marine invertebrates, their ecological and economic values, their life histories and the threats within their submarine habitats from human activities. 

While anyone can seek information from the site, to contribute material participants must register and get a password. Many at the workshop expressed some concerns about the security of such an open, interactive site, and the quality of information allowed to filter in. But Davis assured them that the intent has always been to have MIDI "based on good science" and thus, he said, it is essential to "have a verification process" built into the system. Exactly how such verification is to be done is still being worked out. Specialists will probably review any information submitted before it is officially entered into the database.

But MIDI is more than just a handy PR tool with educational overtones - it also has some solid scientific applications. By providing a much-needed baseline measurement of the biodiversity in the region, MIDI will help monitor and clarify possible changes arising from activities such as oil exploration, subsea mining or trawling. The database should also be useful in detecting the presence of invasive foreign species in our coastal waters, or in identifying species needing special protections.

While MIDI isn't likely to make household names of the creatures in its catalog, Davis hopes it will make invertebrates more appreciated and better understood, and will get people enthused about conserving them and their subsea habitats.

The MIDI project recently received an Implementation Grant from the Gulf of Maine Council (see Gulf Log). You can take MIDI for a "test drive" at