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Weekly reading: Ramirez et al. on structural complexity in ancestral ontologies (again)

Last week we read and appreciated Seltmann et al.’s (2012) effort to carefully describe the benefits, use, and user community roll-out of the spectacularly well annotated Hymenoptera Anatomy Ontology Portal. We clearly need and want something like this for Coleoptera. That said, we continue to explore options to maybe do things a little differently. Looking for inspiration, we are reading once more what is to my mind one of the best demonstrations of how phenotype ontologies can be used to address research questions – by phylogenetic systematists, for phylogenetic systematists.

Ramírez, M.J. & P. Michalik. 2014. Calculating structural complexity in phylogenies using ancestral ontologies. Cladistics (Early View). Available here.

We are also starting, based on this semester’s cumulative readings, to formulate some interests of our own. Hence the following homework for all; due by next Wednesday’s discussion.

Formulate three research themes or questions that are comparative/phylogenetic in nature and could possibly make use of phenotype ontologies. Be very specific; ideally starting with the taxonomic group and character system that you are most intimately acquainted with. (in my case, e.g., that might be acalyptine weevil mouthparts). Best to work outward from the current core of your taxonomic expertise. Research ideas might take into account (yet are clearly not limited to):

  • Evolution of phenotype complexity, reduction.
  • Correlations across character systems.
  • Presence/absence of traits across larger phylogenetic groups and within/among subgroups.
  • Relationships of traits to non-organismal variables (e.g., environment).
  • Annotations and inferences targeting the specimen level versus or higher taxon entities.
  • Evolutionary rates, timing.
  • Associations, coevolutionary themes.
  • Information availability, completeness, suitability for analysis.
  • … [insert your favored domain of phenomena or inquiry here]

The idea is to engage in a bit of a reverse engineering exercise. We know that the earliest phenotype ontologies came out of the model organism community – what Nelson & Platnick (1981) might refer to as “general biology” (pages 4-5). Yet systematists tend to ask comparative questions. What (if any) general structures, entities, and relationships do these comparative/phylogenetic questions entail? Which kinds of inferences are we (most) interested in? How would the components needed to accommodate the inferences be fruitfully translated into a logic framework?

In other words, let’s pretend we are well advised to engage in some conceptual modeling for the future design of a Coleoptera Anatomy Ontology (which may not carry such a name in the end). Start with nailing down our most highly domain-specific questions. Abstract overarching design needs from these. Pretend that solutions will follow.

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