The Lepidoptera Taxome Project
Draft Proposals and Information

Details about the Lepidoptera and Butterfly Taxome Projects

December 2012: Butterflies of America uses Global Butterfly Names and Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity project data, including digitized type photos from Gerardo Lamas
October 2012: Distribution data for 58,059 records of Heliconiini butterflies available online. See also Rosser et al. 2012. Testing historical explanations for gradients in species richness in heliconiine butterflies
February 2008 : 75% of world butterfly names databased so far -- now available online!
Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity specimen database (includes complete Lamas et al. Neotropical butterfly checklist)
24 August 2006: GBIF project now over....

Global Butterfly Names  21 May 2004: Proposal to GBIF
-- FUNDED! $US 50,000
Taxonomy Serving Society 7 June 2002: Final Expression of Interest (PDF) 
The Lepidoptera Taxome Project 23 May 2002: Draft Expression of Interest (PDF)

Initial letter of 8 March 2002: EU funding for a complete butterfly taxonomy?
Scientists contacted
Butterfly Taxome Project, and some references
Proposed achievements of the Butterfly Taxome Project
European and non-European expertise in butterfly taxonomy

Model systems among the butterflies: citation ratings
The scale of the problem: numbers of species of butterflies
The scale of the problem: numbers of species of Lepidoptera
Links to other projects; taxonomy, collections, and genome data


The Lepidoptera Taxome Project aims to coordinate the production, completion, and dissemination of online taxonomy of Lepidoptera on our planet at the species and subspecies level.  There are about 180,000 described species of Lepidoptera, around 10% of all described species of living organisms.

This project started out life as the Butterfly Taxome Project. Given the data banks already available for moths and the enthusiasm of people such as Malcolm Scoble, Niels Kristensen, and George Beccaloni, it seems that at the very least a synonymic catalogue for the entire Lepidoptera will be possible within five years, and should be undertaken. Malcolm Scoble's group has already completed a baseline project on the Geometridae (21,000 species) which demonstrates that the project is plausible. In the butterflies (Papilionoidea), there are about 17,500 described species, or 1% of known organisms, and they will be covered in much greater detail than the moths, including original descriptions and photographs of type specimens or illustrations for almost every name.

In addition, we will obtain DNA sequences from various suitable mitochondrial and nuclear genes useful at least for every butterfly genus or group of genera.  The project will therefore enable a preliminary phylogenetic analysis based on these genes as well as pre-existing morphological data, for use in classification.

This project is intended as a catalyst for a complete taxome project of all of life.  The butterflies and moths represent a benchmark project for the inventory of life, in the same way that Drosophila or human genomes are benchmarks for the genomes of all other species.  Unlike some other databasing approaches, this project will be completely taxon-oriented, on the grounds that a complete taxonomy of 10% of the fauna is more useful than a partial taxonomy of a larger phylogenetic grouping.

The project will attempt to concentrate on the taxonomy of the organisms, rather than getting too sidetracked into the databasing requirements for that taxonomy.  Thus we aim to foster existing expertise and hire new blood into taxonomy and related disciplines, as well as do a lot of typing.

Butterflies in particular are well-recognized in conservation and biodiversity fields, and changes in the geographic distributions of butterflies have been particularly effective in demonstrating the biological effects of global climate change.  Lepidoptera in general are among the major crop pests. Thus, the Lepidoptera Taxome Project will provide immediate direct benefits for management of natural and agricultural ecosystems, in addition to its role as an exemplar for future projects.

There are many databasing and taxonomic projects for other groups of organisms, but few come near to moths and butterflies in terms of potential overall coverage, molecular phylogeny data, economic and iconic importance, knowledge of biology, ecology and distribution data.  The project will aim to collect together existing data under a single umbrella organization consisting of virtually all butterfly taxonomists worldwide, as well as to highlight and target weak taxonomic or molecular genetic coverage in certain phylogenetic groups.

Achieving our goals

We propose funding basic, alpha-taxonomy and molecular phylogenetic work in approximately equal proportion to complete this project. EU funding is currently being investigated; other funding is of course not ruled out.

These documents were prepared after a strategy meeting in Leiden between Andy Brower, Rienk de Jong, Jim Mallet, Soren Nylin, Carla Penz, Felix Sperling, Dick Vane Wright, Niklas Wahlberg and Keith Willmott, with the help of some significant comments from others, such as Naomi Pierce, Alan Heath and Carol Boggs.   Subsequently, many others have had input into the submission of the final documents listed above.

Expression of interest

A draft "expression of interest" for an EU Framework 6 Integrated Project was circulated to members of the Lepidoptera Taxome Project on 23 May 2002.  After consultation, it was decided to broaden the remit.  ENHSIN (European Natural History Specimen Information Network), and ENBI (European Network for Biodiversity Information) were two groups through CETAF (Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities) all supported the idea, and recommended our project as one of the projects they would promote.  In the end, this resulted an approach to the group associated with Species2000 based in Reading, who agreed to let us join their expression of interest entitled  the "European Virtual Biodiversity Laboratory".  I visited Frank Bisby in Reading a week before the deadline for EOIs, to discuss the situation. While the EVBL may be the best partner for the Lepidoptera Taxome Project, our project was a very small part of a very expansive group.  In the end (2004) Frank Bisby decided not to use our services.

It was therefore felt that an Integrated Project more focused on taxonomy and its relation to the rest of biological science, using Lepidoptera as the model taxome, would still be worth submitting separately.  The result was the final collaborative EOI: "Taxonomy serving society", which included the taxonomic component, and delivered its benefits to society via a number of possible intermediary groups including collections databasers, geneticists, agricultural biologists, ecologists, ecological modellers and conservationists.  These EOIs and proposals didn't come to much, and I have to say that the funding situation at the European level for taxonomy is dire; the argument I suppose is that taxonomy isn't important enough financially, or in terms of climate change, to justify any expenditure.

I still have some hope that the political situation for such fundamental documentation and science will change, and the vast archival resources and taxonomic expertise of Europe can be brought to bear on the problem of the lack of freely available taxonomic information.  We just need to make a more convincing case.


In 2003 and 2004, GBIF issued calls for proposals for "Electronic Catalogue of Life (ECAT)" and "Digitization of Collections (DIGIT)". Members of our group put in ECAT proposals for a butterfly project Global Butterfly Names and a separate project to document the "macromoths".  Together, these projects aim to use LepIndex and a variety of other information sources to document around 200,000 of the approximately 291,000 Lepidoptera scientific names, their current status and taxonomic rank.

We have now received limited funding for Global Butterfly Names, and are starting work on this grant, which will run October 2004-March 2006.  The major funding will go towards short-term hiring (5 months, depending on the value of the US$) of an internationally respected researcher, Dr. Gerardo Lamas, to provide work towards a global butterfly names database.  We are in the process of contacting major world butterfly taxonomy researchers across the globe, and would appreciate any help with useful contacts, particularly within mainland China and other Asian countries.

The future

The successful GBIF grant application is at least encouraging, if modest, progress towards the Taxome Project.  However, we still have a long way to go to convince governments and NGOs that the overall project is valuable and of national and international importance, especially as a useful trial run for the overall Catalogue of Life and online taxonomy proposals put forward by the likes of EO Wilson and HCJ Godfray.  All ideas and suggestions as how to proceed further are welcome!

Publications related to taxonomy

Taxonomy: Renaissance or Tower of Babel? Trends Ecol Evol, 2003
Taxonomic Inflation and its Consequences Trends Ecol Evol, 2004

Jim Mallet
originally 9 April 2002
most recently updated 19 Jan 2014