In 2001 with the help of a more than $754,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the database was funded as part of research on the systematics of several groups of primitive marine worms. The research was led by Tyler and Wolfgang Sterrer, curator of the Natural History Museum at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo. Sterrer is the world authority not only on several groups of turbellarians, but of the Gnathostomulida, an enigmatic phylum of worms living mostly in anoxic, smelly muds. Seeking examples of all these worm groups — gnathostomulids, acoel and catenulid turbellarians — required far-ranging travel, and so the research team dubbed their project Global Worming.
The online database, which also includes a complete taxonomic listing of all gnathostomulids as well as turbellarians, is providing a single place where all the relevant information on these worms can be stored and used by researchers, reducing the need to search through piles of obscure paper journal articles. The database tracks current concepts of the relationships of these worms to one another and helps those working on phylogenetic relationships of invertebrates gauge their diversity.
“We’ve tried to sample a wide variety, but we feel that we’ve barely scratched the surface of where these animals can be found,” says Tyler. “The thrust with NSF was clarifying the relationship in the taxonomic hierarchy. We’ve been able to understand the relationship of all these families largely from molecular data, and then we use those data to reconstruct how these animals have changed through time — how their strange shapes and peculiar organ systems allowed them to adapt to different habitats.”
Through the years, Tyler’s travels have included Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Belize and Panama, western Canada, New Zealand, and Australia to study the lower-level flatworms of the meiofauna or small animal world. Others in his lab have conducted research in Brazil, Thailand, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Honduras, Panama, the Virgin Islands, Australia, China, South Pacific islands, arctic Alaska and Russia.
Researchers from around the world also have made contributions to the database, providing characteristics of worms they’ve discovered, diagnoses, geographic data, links to related literature, free-form notes regarding taxa and images.
Those researchers include Sterrer, whom Tyler describes as “an avid world traveler, chasing worms like this to as many exotic and little-visited places as he can.”