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250,000 Transcriptions!

Since our launch several months ago, the Notes from Nature citizen science community has transcribed 250,000 specimen labels!  This is an incredible achievement, and shows promise for where this project can go.  We’re indebted to the citizen scientists out there who love this work and have taken it upon themselves to contribute to science in this way.

Some highlights:

  • Over 3,500 citizen scientists from around the globe participating
  • Over 8,800 plant specimens completed (completion requires at least three transcriptions to ensure quality through consensus)
  • Over 16,000 insect specimens completed (same requirement as plants)
  • Over 25 bird ledger pages completed – these are WAY more time intensive, and were only added days ago (same completion requirement as others)

We’ve learned a lot during this period, and are now in the process of figuring out where to go next, and how to involve bigger crowds of citizen scientists and more interesting collections from around the world.  Our recent call for new collections has garnered interest from curators across the US and Europe, and we hope more will be in contact soon.  It’s a very exciting time.

Thank you for all your support!

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Get your collection into Notes from Nature

This is the moment that many have been waiting for, and that we’ve been trying to figure out how best to handle for several months.  We think we finally have a process in place to receive and evaluate the addition of new collections into Notes from Nature through a variety of pathways.  This process will hopefully allow appropriate consideration of including Notes from Nature on grant proposals, in contributing new collection specimen and receiving data back, and much more.  Now that we are nearly at 250,000 transcriptions in only the first several months, we are excited by the prospects of putting this prototype system to work for the remaining BILLION OR MORE specimen on hold in collections around the world.  We are eager to hear your ideas for adding new content, expanding functionality, and finding ways to continue this project as an engaging citizen science effort and to make it a sustainable community resource.

If you are a collection curator and would like to see your collection become part of Notes from Nature, please visit our About page and read the lower portion describing “How to become a participant in Notes from Nature”.  The most important part is to complete the Application for Inclusion form at the end, which is what we need to know to consider your proposals.

-Andrew Sallans

Notes from Nature vs. English Premier League

If you are an avid Notes from Nature fan and tried to visit the site this past weekend while in the UK, you may have noticed that you could not access it.  Zooniverse team member Chris Lintott offers an explanation of what happened in this Notes from Nature vs. English Premier League match:  http://blog.zooniverse.org/2013/08/15/not-the-premier-league-how-zooniverse-got-blocked-by-the-courts/

Crowd-sourcing of the Natural History Museum bird registers

The Natural History Museum (NHM) began life back in 1753 as part of the British Museum, which was founded in that year. In 1880, the natural history museum departments of the British Museum moved to new, purpose-built buildings in South Kensington, London, becoming known as the British Museum (Natural History) for over a hundred years before it officially adopted its present name towards the end of the 20th century. In 1970, the museum’s bird research collections were moved from London to its out-station in Tring, Hertfordshire, on the site of the former Rothschild Zoological Museum, where they and their associated curatorial staff currently reside.

The bird research collections of the NHM, now probably the largest of their type in the world, have gradually been accumulated since 1753, although relatively little still exists that dates from before 1800. A major step forward in the collections’ documentation occurred in 1837, when a much improved system was adopted that involved entering details of every individual specimen received in standard registers, with each specimen assigned a unique registration number that also appeared on the label attached to it. Since then data on over half a million bird skins, as well as many eggs, nests, skeletons and spirit specimens, were entered into the NHM bird registers up to the 1990s, when a digital registration system was adopted,.

It is this register information for the bird specimens received between 1837 and the 1990s that we now wish to capture by crowd-sourcing, using input from enthusiasts such as yourself. Once acquired, it will form the essential basis for follow-up work, to be conducted by curatorial staff and on-site volunteers, checking each entry against the relevant specimen and its label(s) to confirm and, in many cases, add to the data in what will become a comprehensive specimen data-base. Public availability of this will permit easy access by researchers and others to all information associated with all included specimens held.

Back in the mid-1800s, many of the huge numbers of specimens coming in to the museum were difficult for curators to identify (indeed, some were new to science) and they often had rather limited information accompanying them. This is reflected in the data recorded in the registers for this period, which is often scanty although always comprising a specimen registration number and, almost always, some attempt at identification. By the late 1800s and into the 1900s, more comprehensive data was normally being recorded in a more systematised manner that is clearer to transcribe. Our crowd-sourcing project therefore will begin with the later registers and work backwards. Hopefully the outcome will be that your own skills in transcribing increase in parallel with the challenges that the data present!

Robert Prys – Jones
The Natural History Museum

What good are moths?

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Hummingbird moth, Hemaris thysbe. Photo: Joyce Gross

National Moth Week has arrived. Across the country museums and community groups are celebrating the splendor of one of the most diverse herbivore groups on earth. To join in the fun the team at the Essig Museum imaged our collection of hawk moths (family Sphingidae) for the Notes from Nature project – they are sprinkled in with the other CalBug images. Hawk moths (or sphinx moths) range from medium to very large in size, from very cryptic to conspicuously colored, and from day-flying humming bird and bumble bee mimics to night-flying ghosts of the dark forests. Hawk moth caterpillars are known as hornworms, because of the horn-like spike on their hind-end, and include major pests of tomatoes, tobacco, and other crops. See what species live in your state by searching the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.

Moths and butterflies comprise the order Lepidoptera. The name comes from Latin meaning “scale-wings,” referring to the layers of microscopic scales that make up the color patterns on the wings and body (that powder you got on your fingers if you ever touched a butterfly’s wings). These scales can take on many shapes, sizes, and colors depending on their role in camouflage, mating, or protecting eggs. Scale color patterns are very useful in identifying different species of Lepidoptera – most Americans can recognize a monarch butterfly by its black and red pattern. But they are also the focus of very intense research in evolutionary development, biomechanics, biochemistry, and other areas of ecology and evolution. In one of the Hawaiian moths that I study (Cydia) there are special pouches on the male wings that contain pheromone-producing glands and special “sex” scales that help disperse the mate-attracting odors.

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Scanning Electron Micrograph of typical and “sex” scales of a Cydia moth. Image: PT Oboyski

As an entomologist I am often asked, “What good are mosquitoes?” Or, “What good are cockroaches?” Or especially because they are the focus of my research, “What good are moths?“ People are most familiar with pests of human enterprise, such as clothes moths (Tinea pellionella and Tineola bisselliella), meal moths (Plodia interpunctella), and various garden pests such as cutworms. But these are a tiny fraction of moth diversity. Also, keep in mind that all animals feed on something and live somewhere. The only thing that makes some of them pests is that they feed on things we rather they didn’t in places we don’t want them to. Imagine if we placed a high value on large piles of manure, then dung beetles would be considered pests as well. But there are also species we think of as beneficial. A great example in the northwestern United States is the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) whose caterpillars were imported to feed on tansy ragwort, a pest plant from Eurasia toxic to cattle and other animals. Caterpillars in general keep plants from taking over the world. In turn they are kept in check by their predators, including bats, birds, and parasitic flies and wasps.

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Cinnabar moth caterpillars and adults, biological control agent for tansy ragwort. Photos: Wiki Commons

Speaking of bats … Did you know that some moths have a tympanum (like our ear drum) that is tuned to the echo location signal of bats? Upon hearing the signal of an approaching bat they begin evasive maneuvers. Some tiger moths even send a signal back to bats saying, “You don’t want to eat me, I don’t taste good.” Recent research suggests that hawk moths produce similar warnings to bats, possibly because they do not taste good (many hornworms feed on toxic plants) or possibly because they have spiky legs that are difficult to swallow.

So what good are moths? Apart from being biologically fascinating, aesthetically pleasing, and behaviorally wondrous, amazing aerial acrobats, important links in food webs and controllers of pest plants, good classroom pets, figures in myths and fables and symbols of change, and important models for ecological and evolutionary research, I guess not much.

– Peter Oboyski

Viva la revolucion

Notes from Nature recently surpassed its 200,000th transcription!  Given this milestone, it seems like a good opportunity for the Notes from Nature team to do two things: 1)  We want to show a bit more where – geographically – we have filled in some data gaps; 2)  We want to talk a bit more about the Bigger Picture.  Where do these transcriptions go after they get done!?  We have talked a lot about the scientific uses of these data, and individual projects, but there is a bigger mission and one the Museum world is grappling with right now — how to simultaneously live in an analog and digital world.

Before we talk more about the Big Push to digitize records and get them mobilized for the good of society, lets do something a bit more close to home.  Below is snapshot of an intensity map which shows work done by transcribers state by state.  We focus on the United States here simply because we have had good dropdown list for USA states and could therefore easily get this map made without too much muxing.  We have gotten have gotten a lot of help from transcribers in other counties and you can see more about that in our previous post. You can explore the map in more detail:  click here to see the map .   We made this by simply tallying each record with a particular name of a state, and then linking those state names using a service provided by Google called Fusion Tables.   California (with 64,346 transcriptions) and Florida (with 21,283) make up a lion share of the transcriptions, but there is a lot of effort in the Southeast and West as well.  All things one might expect given the regional foci of CalBug and SERNEC.  Surprising, North Dakota has 1,518 transcriptions completed and Minnesota 2,109!  Go Upper Midwest!

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Merge of nfncountrystateCOUNT and US Regions State Boundaries

All this work really does feed into a larger effort that is happening here in the United States and around the world to make museum data available for broad use.  This isn’t just for scientists, but also for formal and informal science education and the broader public.  Museum specimens are obviously of great value — they even tell us more than the who, what, where, when which serves as a basis for documenting trends in changes in distribution and seasonal and yearly timing events such as emergence from hibernation.  Each specimen yields further secrets — whether it is DNA that can be extracted from the tissues, body size and relation to physiology, and so on.  They also tell stories about landscapes and peoples in the past, and about our own histories.  In this sense, natural history tie into the much larger picture of multiple cultures.

Up until recently, if you wanted to see this vast treasure trove of data, you had to get a special pass to enter the collections, and there under the watchful eyes of curators and collections managers, you could examine specimens.  Museums have always been places where visitors are most welcome, but physically moving around specimens, and figuring out which collection had what remained a challenge.  While access is critical, museum curators have to balance considerations related to the conservation of these precious objects.

In the last ten years, a revolution is unfolding and museums worldwide are digitizing their collections so that the contents can be discovered, searched, and used more effectively and by more people.  This work is very challenging.  Many folks involved in this endeavor have lamented that years of databasing and a lot of time and effort invested in building system to publish data and make them available… and still only 2-3% of the total number of records in museums (based on our best estimates) are digitally discoverable.  We have to hope there is a way to make this whole process more efficient.

So at some point, CalBug and SERNEC will take the hard work done by transcribers and make those digital records available to everyone.  You can see some of the progress that has already happened by checking out projects such as VertNet, GBIF, Map of Life and iDigBio. One of the goals of these projects is to bring together data from various sources in order to create a “one stop shop” for the discovery of biodiversity information.

In sum, the bigger story is that we are witnessing a revolution in how museums make their resources available.  Thanks for taking part and viva la revolucion!

-Rob Guralnick

National Moth Week

Did you know that July 20-28, 2013 is National Moth Week?  You can take your love of the Notes from Nature CalBug moths beyond transcriptions by participating in moth observations in the natural world.  Check out details for participation here:  http://nationalmothweek.org/

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