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
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.
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.
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!
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?
Tens of millions of insect and spider specimens lie pinned into drawers, folded in envelopes, or are floating in jars of alcohol within the major entomology collections of California.** Each specimen’s tiny labels, usually about the size of a honeybee, hold information on who collected it, where and when it was found, what species it is and who identified it. Until now, this information was locked in the drawers and cabinets of eight museums, scattered throughout the state. Calbug is a collaborative effort to begin unlocking this data by digitizing information for over one million specimens and publishing it online.
The rich history of arthropod collecting in the state kicked into high gear with the California Insect Survey, which launched in 1939 to document the diversity and composition of insects and arachnids. A major goal was (and is) to provide practical information about insects, primarily for agriculture. Crops, for example, rely on pollinating insects (like bees and butterflies) and are plagued by pests (like aphids), while other insects (such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps) can help control the pests. Bugs provide a variety of benefits and detriments to other organisms—some assist in decomposing dead matter or provide food for birds and other vertebrates, while others may be vectors of disease or pests. Entomologists have been busy collecting as many of them as possible. While a majority of our collections are from California and the western United States, we have specimens from all over the world.
Besides being key components of agriculture and other ecosystems, insects are the most diverse animal group on the planet, with over one million described species. This accounts for 80% of all known animal diversity. Studies estimate that there are likely five to ten million extant arthropod species in total, including those that have not been discovered yet. Such large diversity, and the small size of individuals, means that a single museum may house millions of specimens. For example, the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley has an estimated six million specimens and the California Academy of Science has about ten million. In fact, we have so many specimens, that we can only estimate how many there actually are!
Because the databasing task is so large, we are first focusing on specific localities that have been sampled more consistently through time, and on groups that address important environmental issues (such as the pollinators and pests mentioned above) and charismatic species (like colorful dragonflies, butterflies and beetles) that have been well-collected over time. The end result will be a specimen database of geographically referenced specimens, and analyses of how changes in species distribution relate to land use and climate.
In addition to learning about the distribution of individual species, we can use insects and spiders as indicators of environmental change. These diverse creatures have relatively short life spans, limited distributions, and a wide range of tolerances to habitat alterations. They can therefore provide fine-scale information on habitat change that we use to better understand how ecological communities are changing over time, and make predictions about the future.
In future posts we will discuss some of these groups in more detail, so stay tuned!
For the launch of Notes from Nature, the CalBug team chose to share some of our charismatic species like Tiger Beetles, Bombardier Beetles, and Skipper Butterflies. These insects are striking in appearance, but also have fascinating behaviors—check out the links below to get a glimpse. We hope you enjoy these insects as much as we do, and thank you for your help!
*An arthropod is an invertebrate with an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and jointed appendages. This includes insects, spiders, crustaceans, and more.
**Calbug institutions include: The California Academy of Sciences, Essig Museum at UC Berkeley, Bohart Museum at UC Davis, Entomology Research Museum at UC Riverside, California State Collection of Arthropods, San Diego Natural History Museum, LA County Museum, and Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
Name: Joan Ball
Title: Ph.D. Student
What you do in your day job? I study aquatic insects as indicators of freshwater ecosystem health.
What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it? If relevant, how will your research benefit? I work on the Science team for Calbug and I’m compiling data from dragonfly and damselfly specimens for my dissertation research. Notes from Nature will provide historical records of species occurrences throughout California that I am using to study changes in dragonfly communities and species distribution over the past century.
What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view? I’m excited for online volunteers to see our insect specimens from wherever they are in the world, and to learn how we use specimen data in research.