The foundation of the database came from Louise Bush, a zoologist who spent her career studying marine worms and keeping meticulous records of their characteristics and habitats on index cards. While Tyler knew of her research through her publications on turbellarians, it was a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, Julian Smith, who first contacted her about a new species the two of them discovered.
Before her death in 1992 at the age of 84, Bush worked with Tyler to transcribe her extensive collection of handwritten index cards into Global Worming’s digital database.
“She long had a vision of providing access to her database to other scientists through digital connections, and she kept me motivated to accomplish that,” says Tyler. “We’ve made her goal a reality.”
Through the years, a number of students in Tyler’s lab have helped capture Bush’s “massive” manual files for the database. There was also a volunteer, Steve Schilling, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee for whom biology has always been an avocation.
“I was inspired by Rachel Carson in 1963 as a high school senior,” says Schilling. “I wanted to make a small contribution to the biodiversity crisis.”
Before retiring from the EPA, Schilling worked on an intra-agency project to create a taxonomic list that could easily be used by a variety of federal agencies. He retired from the EPA and moved to Brooksville, Maine, in 1997. A former colleague reminded him that Tyler was one of the experts the EPA contracted with on its taxonomic list project.
“I found Dr. Tyler was a rare combination of a world-class biologist and informatics expert,” says Schilling, who now lives in Colorado and still works on the database, entering information almost daily.
“You don’t know what biodiversity you are losing without the inventory,” he says of the importance of the database.
Also instrumental in the growth of the Global Worming project is former UMaine graduate student and post-doctoral researcher Matthew Hooge, whose contributions to the database have included some spectacular photography of the invertebrate species.
“For many of these worms, Dr. Tyler and I are the only people who have ever viewed them while they’re alive,” he says. “I put a lot of effort into taking digital images that accurately show what the living worms look like, and hopefully capturing how interesting and, often, pretty they are.”
At UMaine, Hooge focused on the systematics of the Acoela. He was the first to explain the phylogenetic relationships of these worms, which, until recently, had simply been pigeonholed into various types without consideration of their evolution.
“This involved describing new species, especially because most of the species I collected in the field were previously unknown to science,” says Hooge, who is now a senior environmental scientist for Wilson Construction Co., in Oregon. He also looked for new physical features in the worms he collected in an effort to help understand the interrelationships of the species.
“I benefited from the project management experience gained while working in Dr. Tyler’s lab to go along with the construction experience I had prior to pursuing a higher degree in biology,” says Hooge, who also continues to make occasional updates to the database.
“There are so many species yet to be described and so much more work to be done,” says Hooge.