MorphoBank is a web application providing an online database and workspace for evolutionary research, specifically systematics (the science of determining the evolutionary relationships among species). One can think of MorphoBank as two databases in one: one that permits researchers to upload images and affiliate data with those images (labels, species names, etc.) and a second database that allows researchers to upload morphological data and affiliate it with phylogenetic matrices. In both cases, MorphoBank is project-based, meaning a team of researchers can create a project and share the images and associated data exclusively with each other. When a paper associated with the project is published, the research team can make their data permanently available for view on MorphoBank where it is now archived.
The phylogenetic matrix aspect of MorphoBank is designed to aid systematists working alone or in teams to build large phylogenetic trees using morphology (anatomy, histology, neurology, or any aspect of the phenotype) or a combination of morphology and molecular data. In contemporary systematic methods in which morphology is used to build trees of species, one starts by constructing a matrix made of characters and taxa. Characters are features of an organism that appear in different forms. Examples include “eyes: blue, green or brown” or wings: present or absent. To convert these to a form that fits in a matrix, one might translate these as follows, “eyes: state 1 (blue), state 2 (green), state 3 (brown).” Traditionally this has been done with desktop programs like MacClade, which record this information in what is called a nexus file (other formats have also been proposed). Until recently nexus files could not also keep a picture of the character state, something that is very useful for researchers actively making comparisons and for later researchers trying to understand the anatomical basis of some comparisons that might have been made decades ago.
MorphoBank allows researchers to upload and download their nexus files, and to edit them in the MorphoBank online workspace. It also allows researchers to upload images affiliated with each cell in a matrix, to zoom on these images, to label the images and to affiliate various kinds of metadata with an image (species, specimen number, etc.). Researchers can download images and can simultaneously collaborate on a matrix online.
We built MorphoBank for two main reasons.
1) Seeing the images that document the basis for a character state is enormously helpful to researchers during their research project. This is particularly important if their matrices are large (hundreds of taxa and thousands of characters). Before MorphoBank a researcher would have had to trust her memory as she made comparisons among hundreds of species. It seemed much more scientific to store an image of a character to refer to repeatedly while adding new data.
2) Too much information was being lost when morphologists produced phylogenetic trees. No archive existed for morphologists to store the images that backed up their character designations. This seemed wasteful and caused a lot of repeated work. The field of morphological systematics could subsequently not grow as fast (in terms of numbers of characters) as molecular systematics, the latter being well-databased in GenBank.