Short- and long-term development and applications
The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a National Science Foundation sponsored project designed to gather and make publicly available 30 years of ecological data on the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity. NEON includes several science groups that will make terrestrial, aquatic, aerial and tower-based annual observations across 60 sites in the continental US, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The NEON project is also supported by a variety of infrastructural teams (e.g. project management, engineering, and 12 others). Currently in its construction period, the project is slated to be fully operational by 2017. Visit NEON's website and the science strategy document for more information.
NEON's terrestrial observations are focused on a few focal taxa. Our insect focal taxa are carabids, or ground beetles, and mosquitoes. Over the 30-year operations phase, ground beetle and mosquito specimens will be collected during the growing season and identified to species level by trained technicians (parataxonomists) at 20 NEON support facilities. Teaching collections and other resources – described below in more detail – will aid technicians' identifications. Subsets of specimens will be checked by expert taxonomists and / or sequenced for the CO1 marker to verify identifications, or possibly, to help unveil new species. All specimens (including unsorted "bycatch"), and any extracted DNA will be archived in existing collections institutions.
To support the parataxonomists' insect species identifications, we are currently using an integrative taxonomic approach to build a digital reference library. We describe the reference library development in a recent PLoS ONE paper. The specimens for this work are either field-collected during prototype campaigns or from museum archives. All the assembled resources for each specimen – sequence data, photos, and other ecological information – can be publicly-accessed online from the Barcode of Life Datasystem (BOLD).
Within BOLD, we have two public projects, NEONT and NEONZ. NEONT includes records that we have the most confidence in; specimens that have been morphologically identified by expert taxonomists and united with bi-directional contiguous reads > 600 bp that do not conflict with any other data. The NEONZ project contains records in progress, which include useful information, but do not meet the criteria of NEONT. We are also tagging our records for further clarity. Our tag system uses 'parataxonomist' for those specimens looked at only by a parataxonomist, and 'open_to_question' for those records that are not sufficient to be 'reference' records. We welcome input to resolve 'open to question' records into 'reference' records.
Meanwhile, both types of records have proven useful. 'Open to question' records have verified a range expansion in the case of the mosquitoes, and helped us to better understand the genetic relationships among ground beetle species. The completed reference library, in addition to its critical utility for NEON's parataxonomists, will serve a variety of uses for others. For example, the time-intensive and costly effort of rearing juvenile mosquitoes to adulthood for morphological identification can be avoided by barcoding mosquito larvae. Non-experts can accurately identify ground beetles, which are often used as environmental indicators. Systematists can view NEON's photos in BOLD to examine the morphological diversity of a particular species. These are a few uses that spring to mind – we look forward to these data supporting as yet unconceived explorations.