Formalizing Invertebrate Morphological Data: A Descriptive Model for Cuticle-Based Skeleto-Muscular Systems, an Ontology for Insect Anatomy, and their Potential Applications in Biodiversity Research and Informatics
The spectacular radiation of insects has produced a stunning diversity of phenotypes. During the past 250 years, research on insect systematics has generated hundreds of terms for naming and comparing them. In its current form, this terminological diversity is presented in natural language and lacks formalization, which prohibits computer-assisted comparison using semantic web technologies. Here we propose a Model for Describing Cuticular Anatomical Structures (MoDCAS) which incorporates structural properties and positional relationships for standardized, consistent, and reproducible descriptions of arthropod phenotypes. We applied the MoDCAS framework in creating the ontology for the Anatomy of the Insect Skeleto-Muscular system (AISM). The AISM is the first general insect ontology that aims to cover all taxa by providing generalized, fully logical, and queryable, definitions for each term. It was built using the Ontology Development Kit (ODK), which maximizes interoperability with Uberon (Uberon multispecies anatomy ontology) and other basic ontologies, enhancing the integration of insect anatomy into the broader biological sciences. A template system for adding new terms, extending, and linking the AISM to additional anatomical, phenotypic, genetic, and chemical ontologies is also introduced. The AISM is proposed as the backbone for taxon-specific insect ontologies and has potential applications spanning systematic biology and biodiversity informatics, allowing users to: 1) use controlled vocabularies and create semiautomated computer-parsable insect morphological descriptions; 2) integrate insect morphology into broader fields of research, including ontology-informed phylogenetic methods, logical homology hypothesis testing, evo-devo studies, and genotype to phenotype mapping; and 3) automate the extraction of morphological data from the literature, enabling the generation of large-scale phenomic data, by facilitating the production and testing of informatic tools able to extract, link, annotate, and process morphological data. This descriptive model and its ontological applications will allow for clear and semantically interoperable integration of arthropod phenotypes in biodiversity studies.