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Calbug’s Dragonfly Research

If you are working on Calbug transcriptions, you’ve probably seen some dragonflies and damselflies pop up.  So, I wanted to take the opportunity to let you know how I’m using data from these specimens in my Ph.D. research.

But first, why study dragonflies?  First of all, these charismatic aquatic insects have been well-collected over time, making them good subjects for studies of change in community composition and distribution. Dragonflies also have a range of known pollution tolerance-levels and are useful indicators of general habitat degradation for freshwater habitats. They may be particularly good indicators of biological effects of climate warming. Studies in Great Britain have shown that the ranges of many species have expanded, range boundaries have shifted northward, and first-flight days are occurring earlier as a result of climate warming since 1960. Many of these changes are occurring faster or are more pronounced than in other groups. For example, one study found that dragonflies in Britain have experienced range shifts averaging 88 kilometers (km) northward, compared to 53 km for butterflies. Overall, dragonflies tend to like warmer habitats, and their high dispersal ability may allow them to respond more quickly to climate warming. At the same time, some species, usually those specialized for stream habitat or certain types of wetlands, are experiencing significant range reductions.

Eight-spotted Skimmer, perching. Photo © Ray Bruun

Eight-spotted Skimmer, perching. Photo © Ray Bruun

California is an interesting place to study changes in aquatic insect communities, because this relatively dry region has experienced drastic changes in aquatic habitat over the past 100 years. For example, irrigation for agriculture across the previously dry Central Valley has created more permanent freshwater habitats throughout the summer. The state has also experienced a dam-building frenzy over the past 100 years… 1400 dams now block the flow of every major river and most minor ones across the state. This eliminates significant portions of flowing water habitats and increases the amount of lake-type habitat. The human population of California has also dramatically increased from around 2.7 million to 37 million people over the past century. So, water demand is high and landscapes are becoming more and more dominated by urban areas and agriculture. So, how are these changes influencing plants and animals?

My research addresses this question by focusing on dragonflies and damselflies, collectively known as Odonata or “odonates.”  In one study, I’m using the locality and date information for each specimen in our collections to compile species lists for different California counties and time periods. The goal is to identify changes in odonate communities—such as species richness and the percentage of habitat specialists versus generalists—from the species lists, and identify species that are expanding or contracting in distribution. Museum collections, however, have some problems with their data, as you probably are beginning to realize after participating in the data entry! One is that collecting effort varies for different regions and time periods based on the interest of collectors. We can try to correct for this using a combination of statistics and smart data selection. For example, some researchers have used a relatively new statistical method that incorporates the length of species lists for sites or regions as a measure of effort for that area. This assumes that regions with longer lists had higher effort (an assumption that often, but not always, holds true). In regions with short lists, you would expect to find more species than were actually present in the records. In particular, some species that are harder to find or are less common may occur in more regions than what is represented in the collection. After accounting for effort, the ultimate goal is to determine whether changes in landscape variables, such as temperature, precipitation and human population influence communities across regions.

I have also resurveyed sites originally sampled by C.H. Kennedy (a collector you may come across!) in 1914. While he left comprehensive lists of species collected at specific sites throughout California and Nevada, he did not indicate the dates that he visited each site in his notes!  So, I used information from the specimens to reconstruct specific dates that Kennedy sampled each site, and then visited the sites within a week or so of the original sample date. In preliminary work comparing his surveys to my own, I have found that communities are becoming more similar across sites—we are seeing a homogenization of dragonfly communities, which may reflect the spread of urban and agricultural landscapes.

Hopefully, this gives you a taste for how we might use some of this data. We will keep you posted on the results!  And, feel free to email me, at , for more information on this research.

– Joan Ball

Calbug fields and photos

Recent comments and questions in the discussion boards have drawn our attention to aspects of transcribing that were not clear. So, we changed a couple of things.

First, we removed the Host, Latitude and Longitude fields, because many of our labels do not contain this information.  Instead, we added an “Other Information” field where you can enter any information that is not included in the other fields. As explained in the help text, this includes things like the collecting method (e.g. malaise trap), collecting times, name of host plant, etc.  Previously, it was unclear whether you should enter locality information exactly as on the label or if you should interpret information, like abbreviations. Because many people are transcribing this highly-variable information, we would like you to enter the locality exactly as it says on the label. Otherwise, we will end up with multiple interpretations of the same locality. One exception is if there is an obvious misspelling that is not an abbreviation—it would be helpful if you use the correct spelling. Please keep looking up the country, state and county information if they are missing from the label. But, keep a lookout for locations with multiple potential counties, and do not enter a county if this is the case.

In the future we may call on you again to help us geographically reference (“georeference”) these localities. That is, determine the latitude and longitude of the localities and estimate the uncertainty around those points. It makes more sense to us to wait until we have completed the data entry so that we can group the records by locality and georeference each locality just once.

You may also have noticed that the photo quality for some of Calbug’s recent photographs is not very good. That’s because when Calbug started, we used different methods for photographing and a different type of camera. Don’t worry, the bad photos will be increasingly rare in the future.  To get an inside look at how we are taking photos now, check out this instructional video that we made last year for students and staff imaging our insect specimens.

-Joan Ball

What happened to the transcription progress?

One of the questions we have been grappling with at Notes from Nature is how to add more specimen images to the application while still showing a clear path of overall transcription progress.  On the one hand, we have many more specimen images lined up from both CalBug and SERNEC, and need to keep expanding the pool of interesting and scientifically important collections being transcribed.  On the other hand, we don’t want Notes from Nature citizen science transcribers to become frustrated by a seemingly bottomless pool and confused by constantly increasing and decreasing progress bars.  In attempting to address this challenge, we’re going to do some small tests.  We’ve added some new specimen in recent days, and would like to hear what you think about these additions.  Among the new additions, we have about 74,000 new bugs, including many bombardier beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies, as well as about 13,500 new plant specimen.  Do you like that we’ve added these new specimen images?  Were you worried by the drop in transcription percentages?  Should we work to complete “missions” with smaller subsets before adding more content?  Whatever the case, check out the new specimen on Notes from Nature!”

Tending Our Notes from Nature Garden

Sometimes in the shuffle of getting things done, we forget to explain the simplest things.   For example, where do all these images come from?  Are there more to do when these are done?   What the heck is a CalBug or a SERNEC?

So lets answer some of these questions as best we can.  As we mentioned in the “About” section of Notes from Nature, CalBug and SERNEC are both regional consortia of natural history collections — CalBug focused on western North American (predominately) insects and SERNEC on southeastern United States plant specimens.

Lets turn to the SERNEC records first.  Right now the following herbaria  (or single plant collection) are featured on the site:  The R. K. Godfrey Herbarium at Florida State University, with 8,368 specimen images available and the Mountain Lake Biological Station Herbarium at the University of Virginia with 6,990 specimen images.  Soon we plan to load a third collection of 13,511 images from the herbarium at the University of South Alabama.   This represents a small proportion of the millions of specimens found in southeastern United States herbaria, so there is still a LOT of work to do here.

CalBug has about 230,000 images already taken,of which ~33,000 have been already made available via Notes from Nature, with another 28,000 to be added shortly.  These mostly come from the Essig Entomology Museum at U.C. Berkeley but also from U.C. Riverside and the California Academy of Sciences.  CalBug will also be adding more images in the future.   The ones there now represent a select group of insect taxa including: bombardier beetles  (genus = ‘Brachinus’ or genus = ‘Metrius’), cuckoo wasps (family = ‘Chrysididae’), odonates or dragon flies,  (order = ‘Odonata’), skippers (family = ‘Hesperiidae’), and tiger beetles (genus = ‘Cicindela’ or genus = ‘Omus’ or genus =’Amblycheila’).

Video from CalBug

Like the CalBug portion of Notes from Nature?  Take a few minutes and view this video that they produced about the need for entomological museum collections and some of the challenges that they face.  It’s all part of the strategy for understanding global change.  See video here:  Global Change and CalBug

Shapely beetles on Notes from Nature

Are you curious about how Notes from Nature is actually making an impact on real scientific research?  One of our collaborators, Kip Will, a scientist with the CalBug team at the University of California – Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology, offers some detail in a post on another blog.  Kip talks about how he uses the data afterwards, how one of his undergraduate assistants has been involved, and some of their preliminary results.  It’s great to know that all this citizen science work makes a difference!  – Andrew Sallans

See full post here:  Shapely beetles on Notes from Nature

Profile of Notes from Nature Team Member: Kip Will

Kip on expedition in Chile.

Kip on expedition in Chile.

Name:  Kip Will

Title:  Associate Director of the Essig Museum of Entomology and Associate Professor in the Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

 Where do you work primarily?  My research is on the systematics, taxonomy and evolution of a major, world-wide group of beetles (Carabidae). As a field biologist I travel to many parts of the world to sample them. Most of my time is split between the Southern Hemisphere (for example Australia or Chile) and the California region.

 What you do in your day job?  When classes are in session I teach the wonderful students of UC, Berkeley about insects, evolution, ecology, and behavior. I advise undergraduate and graduate students on projects that range from DNA sequencing to biological-illustration to observations of beetle behavior. I also take time to study the morphology and genetics of beetles in the laboratory and in the museum collection.

Photo of a Californian beetle, Pterostichus morionides.  By Kip Will.

Photo of a Californian beetle, Pterostichus morionides. By Kip Will.

 What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?  As one of the CalBug science team members, I will help to manage the specimen imaging and the flow of data back from the Citizen Science Volunteers. My research is entirely specimen-based and so having the valuable data from specimens in our collections digitally available for analysis will be a huge benefit to my research. One beetle group I am currently working on has about 125 species that are only found in western North America and most of these only in California. We have tens of thousands of specimens of these beetles to study. Once label data has been transcribed from these beetles I will be able to analyze the spatial relationships among these species at high resolution and look for trends in patterns over long (evolutionary) and short (ecological) timescales.

What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view?    Being able to share the thrill of discovery and passion for science with such a broad audience is amazing for me. Also, with the help of volunteers, I now see a task I thought at best would take most of my lifetime could possibly be done in months. This is something of a dream come true.

Profile of Notes from Nature Team Member: Rosemary Gillespie

Name:  Rosemary Gillespie

Title:  Director of the Essig Museum of Entomology and Professor in the Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Where do you work primarily?  My research looks at how species form and diversify, work that takes me to the isolated environments of remote islands of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. These islands serve as microcosms for the whole evolutionary process and also allow us to recognize the influence of humans and other vectors of change. I work mostly on spiders, in particular those that have radiated into myriad forms on the remote islands of the Pacific. To this end, I spend many days in the high elevation cloud forests of the islands, working mostly at night when the spiders are active.

What you do in your day job?  On a regular day, there are lots of things going on. I teach classes to some wonderfully enthusiastic groups of students and have meetings with diverse faculty to talk about directions of various initiatives, a particular current focus being on global change biology. With my students and postdocs, I discuss their projects, which range from the genomics of scorpion venoms to the diversity of sponges in marine lakes in Indonesia, and characterization of microbial communities to the description of new species of insects and spiders.

What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?  I became involved with NfN before I knew it existed! I was talking to a colleague, John Wieczorek, here at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, about the insurmountable problem of digitizing the massive numbers of insect specimen labels. John’s answer was to get them up on the web and ask for the help of citizen scientists. So we developed a protocol to get images of the labels up on the web – but how do we get them out to citizen scientists? This was when we discovered Zooniverse – over 2 years ago now. The first connections were made largely through the work of Joanie Ball, who is finishing her PhD here at Berkeley. And we’ve come a long way since then! Now that it’s up and running, what we can gain from it, first and foremost, is exposing the wealth of historical information to people who are ready to explore – and seeing how they engage with the material. The second is the use of the information provided – how it can be incorporated into the museum database to inform us about changes in biodiversity over the history of the collection.

What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view?  The most thrilling aspect of this effort is connecting with people that are interested in exploring the opportunities and genuinely want to help the scientific enterprise. It’s so exciting to see the level of interest in making this very new and exciting endeavor actually become reality!

A sampling of Notes from Nature

If you haven’t yet joined in on the Notes from Nature transcription effort, there’s still plenty of time.  We’ll be adding new collections in coming days, and there will be many more exciting specimen to see.

Here’s a sampling of some of the fascinating specimen that have appeared already.  Which are your favorite?

Profile of Notes from Nature Team Member: Peter Oboyski

Title:   Collections Manager / Curatorial Supervisor

Oboyski_beebeardWhere do you work primarily?   Essig Museum of Entomology, University of California, Berkeley, and field work in California, Hawaii, French Polynesia

What you do in your day job?  I manage the approximately six million arthropod specimens held by the Essig Museum. In addition to curating the collection (sorting, pinning, labeling, identifying, preserving), I interact with specialists around the world providing information and specimen loans (much like a library loans books). My research focuses on the biogeography (species distribution patterns and processes) and phylogeny (evolutionary relationships) of small moths on remote Pacific Islands like Hawaii and Tahiti.

What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?   The Essig Museum is part of the CalBug initiative to digitize over one million specimens from eight California institutions. I help to coordinate a team of scientists and undergraduate assistants to image, database, and georeference these specimens. As collections manager, digitizing the Essig Museum collection will greatly aid my ability to provide specimens and data to other scientists. And as a researcher, I will use these digitized data to analyze distribution patterns across time and space in an ever-changing landscape.

What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view?  Not only am I very excited to have all these extra eyes and fingers to help us process hundreds of thousands of records (a job that would otherwise take decades to complete), but I welcome the opportunity to share our knowledge and collections with the citizen science community.
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