About Mandala

Mandala 9 is a suite of 27 interrelated database tables now in three files (see Overview, a PowerPoint slideshow, and Model (PDF)), which uses the popular cross-platform database application, FileMaker® Pro. Mandala supports four major realms of data acquisition and management for systematics and biodiversity studies: specimens, literature, taxonomic names, and illustrations. The name Mandala means interconnectedness and interrelatedness and the imagery inspiring its use was derived from a passage in the detective novel Dead Pan by Jane Dentinger.

A complicated round of intense glances was exchanged which, had they been charted in ink, would’ve formed a mandala in midair. [p. 185 of the Penguin Books ed.]

The term is also used to describe beautiful, intricately designed sand paintings.

Mandala can be used to:

  • track museum loans, specimens, bulk samples from a collecting event & their subsamples sorted for further identification by specialists;
  • detail the complex history of a taxonomic name, relate elements to literature, specimens, and illustrations;
  • export a multitude of data for phenological plots, specimens examined lists, and distribution mapping;
  • provide direct URLs to GenBank records and document the processes (extraction, PCR, primers, sequences) used to arrive at the GenBank submission;
  • catalogue images and illustrations related to specimens, taxa, localities, collecting events, and literature;
  • store and link literature to appropriate taxonomic names, specimens, illustrations, and collecting localities; and
  • record numerous details about individual specimens including a literal transcription of the label(s), enhanced locality and collecting event data as interpreted from the label(s), taxonomic determination history, physical condition of the specimen and how it has been preserved, ecological/biological associations with other collected specimens or other taxa associated but not collected, type designation, and other relevant information.

Created as part of a systematics project on stiletto flies (Insecta: Diptera: Therevidae), the development of Mandala was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy programs (DEB 95-21925 and DEB 99-77958), the NSF-sponsored Fiji Bioinventory of Arthropods (DEB 04-25790), the NSF PEET project on the Tabanidae (DEB 07-31528), and the Schlinger Foundation. It was developed by Gail Kampmeier with major input by the following therevid PEETsters: Michael Irwin (Principal Investigator), F. Chris Thompson (consultant), and Kevin HolstonSteve Gaimari, Mark Metz, and Martin Hauser (former graduate students), Christine Lambkin, Don Webb (collaborator), Shelah Morita (Tabanid PEET), Neal Evenhuis (Fiji project), and Amanda Buck and Kristin Algmin (database team). Numerous others have had an impact on the shaping of Mandala, including all of the students who have worked on data entry. Mandala is also being used for taxa other than flies with only a few minor modifications and was used in the 2001 Allerton Biodiversity Blitz and the 2005 Busey Woods BioBlitz.

Mandala is a research tool and data manager. New data may be constantly be added, enhanced, and updated. Ongoing structural changes from user requests facilitate data input and enhance ease of output. Data in Mandala may be in various stages of verification, curation, and completeness, which may be documented in critical tables (TAXA, SPECIMEN, LITERATURE).

Specimens in Mandala have unique identifiers that are linked to taxonomic names, localities and collecting events, illustrations, literature, associated specimens, other associated organisms, ecological and behavioral observations via a controlled vocabulary, biogeographic regions, loan and deposit information from collections, determinations, and a wealth of other characteristics about the physical specimen itself, including sex, mounted state, dissections, developmental stage collected and in collection, and pupation and emergence dates. Newly added to Mandala 8 are features allowing the tracking of the progress of molecular studies from various extracted parts of a specimen all the way through PCR and sequencing to deposit in GenBank, along with the associated webpage URL.

The taxonomic names table (TAXA) allows the user to document all facets of name use, including references verifying that use. The history of a taxonomic name can be extremely complex, requiring the attention of a professional systematist, yet a taxonomic record does not need to be complete to be functional e.g., attaching a working name to a specimen. The construction of Mandala allows not only the tracking of valid and invalid taxonomic names but also of working, manuscript, and in press names. The relational framework of Mandala allows the automatic display of homonyms as well as a full synonymic list of names linked to any valid name, which may be exported for nomenclatural catalogues.

Mandala can be used to track museum loans, both as the institution or person providing the loan and the one receiving it.

Mandala is fully cross-platform for any Macintosh or Windows machine that is capable of running FileMaker Pro 9-11. There is a separate file (not currently supplied with the demo) into which data to be served to the web is optimized for faster query response. The PHP search pages were generated using FMStudio and Dreamweaver®. The Fiji arthropod data and the Therevid fly data may now be searched and mapped in DiscoverLife.org. Through DiscoverLife, we connected both datasets to GBIF’s worldwide network in the last quarter of 2008.


The long anticipated definitive chapter on Mandala, a product of the 4th International Diptera Congress in Brisbane, Australia in 2002, was released 18 March 2009 from Brill. This reference should now be cited in publications referring to this database system.

Kampmeier, G. E. and M. E. Irwin. 2009.  Meeting the interrelated challenges of tracking specimen, nomenclature, and literature data in Mandala.  Chapter 15 in T. Pape, D. Bickel, and R. Meier (eds.) Diptera Diversity: Status, Challenges and ToolsLeiden: Brill Academic Publishers, pp. 407-437.