Crowd-sourcing natural history

Lygopodium palmatum
What I think of as my first “real” science job was a year I spent in Pittsburgh, interning for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. One of my most enjoyable duties was assisting a WPC ecologist on systematic surveys of plant diversity at a series of study plots out in the mountains. If I recall correctly, the point of the project was actually to assess collateral damage done to spring ephemerals and other understory plants by various herbicides that timber companies wanted to use to prevent striped maple from taking over recently clear-cut tracts of forest.
But before I could be much use out in the woods, I needed to learn to identify the plant species we’d be tracking. So my boss took me down to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I spent a few afternoons leafing through specimen sheets at the herbarium. It wasn’t the same thing as seeing actual, live plants in the field, but it gave me a head start on learning the distinguishing characteristics of the species we were most likely to find.
With the online resources available now, almost a decade later, I would probably have been able to do that studying without leaving my cubicle at the WPC offices. And one of the ways I could do that would actually help to extract the data contained in all those herbarium specimens. That’s if I used Notes from Nature, a site that asks volunteers to transcribe the specimen identity and collection information on herbarium sheets and other natural history collections. As Florida State University botanist Austin Mast notes in this Public Radio report, that volunteer labor can speed up the digitization of natural history records by orders of magnitude.
In an even more radical approach, the websites iSpot and eBird ask volunteers to record their natural history observations directly, creating crowd-sourced records of species occurrences. (iSpot covers everything from amphibians to fungi, while eBird is specialized exactly as you would expect from the name.) Both of these sites provide educational resources in concert with their data-collection missions; iSpot through user-generated quizzes, eBird by helping bird-watchers find new species in their own neighborhoods. And both of them make their datasets public.
These projects are really all modern iterations of a long tradition of amateur contributions to basic natural history, and some truly large-scale projects have been built around “citizen science” initiatives in recent years. I’ve only found a single Molecular Ecology paper using eBird data—the authors used it to build a species distribution model for white-breasted nuthatches—but I imagine we’ll see more of them in the near future.
How do we feel about outsourcing this kind of basic data collection to volunteers? I’m inclined to say this is a great way to involve the public in science directly, and it clearly allows us to collect far more data points than we can with expert staff. It does seem that it would introduce an additional level of uncertainty into data collection, perhaps most especially for rare or hard-to-identify taxa—but it has also worked well in exactly such situations.
If any of our readers have worked with data from one of these crowd-sourced sites, let us know in the comments—what did you use, and how did it work out? In the meantime, I think I’ll take a coffee break and transcribe some museum specimen tags.
Dickinson JL, J Shirk, D Bonter, R Bonney, RL Crain, J Martin, T Phillips, and K Purcell. 2012. The current state of citizen science as a tool for ecological research and public engagement. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10: 291–297. doi: 10.1890/110236.
Smyth RR, LL Allee and JE Losey. 2013. The Status of Coccinella undecimpunctata (L.) (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) in North America: An Updated Distribution from Citizen Science Data. The Coleopterists Bulletin 67:532-535. doi: 10.1649/0010-065X-67.4.532.
Walstrom VW, J Klicka, and GM Spellman. Speciation in the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): a multilocus perspective. Molecular Ecology 21:907–920. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05384.x.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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