April 15, 2013

Internet resources about Microgastrinae. Part V

This is the fifth part of a series of posts discussing available, free, Internet resources on microgastrine wasps (Braconidae). The interested reader can retrieve the complete series by searching for the Tag "Internet Resources" within this blog.

The choice of today is a especial one, because it is a website widely used by thousands of users, but it is perhaps overlooked in many ways when speaking of taxonomy. I am referring today to The Barcode of Life Data Systems or BOLD, as it is commonly known and mentioned. 

The best way to summarize what BOLD is can be found in its "About Us" section, which states that: "The Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) is an informatics workbench aiding the acquisition, storage, analysis, and publication of DNA barcode records. By assembling molecular, morphological, and distributional data, it bridges a traditional bioinformatics chasm. BOLD is freely available to any researcher with interests in DNA barcoding..."

Yes, BOLD is one of the most powerful sources of molecular data -and analysis of that data- that exists at present. And yet, there is much more when thinking about microgastrine wasps. Because Microgastrinae happens to be the largest group of any parasitoid wasp represented in BOLD. There are almost 30,000 specimens, with 24,000+ of them having rendered sequences (20,000+ of them "barcode complaint"), and almost 2,600 species (with 1,700+ of those species represented by at least one barcode). I have not looked at all the groups  in BOLD, but I am pretty sure that very few subfamilies of living things are better represented there in the significant way that Microgastrinae is.

Stop for a moment to consider the magnitude of those numbers, and contrast them against the total of described species of Microgastrinae -which is around 2,200. What BOLD figures partially tell us is the story of the amazing diversity of this group of wasps. And most of that information (around 70%) is freely available to any interested researcher. That is because a recent paper released (i.e. made public) around 20,000 of those sequences and associated information -I commented about that in a previous post. That means any person with a sequence suspected to be a microgastrine wasp can now check it against that huge database and sees if it matches any of the ones already in BOLD. And if not, at least find out how "close" to other sequences it may be.

Also, it is quite likely that an unknown specimen can be associated with the genus it belongs based on its sequence. That is because of the comprehensive coverage of genera currently available in BOLD (only 3 genera of Microgastrinae have not been barcoded yet, all of them very rare in collections). Although CO1 is not the best gene for phylogeny, the barcoding region still carries a lot of useful phylogenetic signal, certainly at least for Microgastrinae.

Another resource to look at in BOLD are the photos of the specimens, comprising thousands of images for microgastrines, some of them of great quality -although not all. There are colour photos of some genera of Microgastrine which have never been made available elsewhere, thus one can see how those genera "look" by just searching a particular genus and checking if there is any available photo.  See below an example, for the Palearctic species Paroplitis wesmaeli (Ruthe, 1860), a rather uncommon genus which I do not believe has been shown in colour before.

Photo of one specimen of Paroplitis wesmaeli (Ruthe), deposited in the Canadian National Collection, Ottawa. Photographed by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (License Holder). License: CreativeCommons-Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2009)

For the sake of fair criticism, I should add a warning: there are mistakes with some of those photos, which cannot be taken for sure in all cases. Unfortunately, some pictures shown are not even of a braconid wasp! That may happen for several reasons: wrong photo associated with a specimen, wrong identification of a specimen made by the person submitting the photo, impossibility to contact the original source to correct things... But, honestly, the same situation happens with other websites showing insect pictures.

Another problem with the data about Microgastrinae (and indeed with many other groups of parasitoid wasps) is the accuracy of the identifications available. This is not a problem of BOLD per se, but of the persons submitting the records to BOLD. Because I am personally involved, I can tell that there is constant effort to correct those identifications, although there is a long way to go before we "clean" all of the mistakes.

The above "shortcomings" are very minor compared to the amount of information and help a researcher can obtain from BOLD. I strongly recommend to browse the site and become familiar with the many possibilities it offers, especially the new version 3.0, which represents a considerable improvement (and added capabilities) compared to previous versions. A new user needs not to worry about how to get around: there is an online manual where things are explained in a simple way, including plenty of illustrations. The best way is to get involved and start looking for (and playing with!) the many resources available. Enjoy!


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