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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

A look at some Notes from Nature stats

The Notes from Nature project has been running for almost two months already and we are still just excited as the day we launched. The community has been great and we have received some amazing support and feedback from many of you. We are actively working to expand our collection coverage and hope to keep you all entertained through all the beautiful summer evenings ahead of us. With that said, we thought it would be a nice moment to take a look at some of the trends of our community. This serves a both a peek behind the curtains as well as a sort of snapshot that we can return to in the future to see what has changed and how we improve over time.

We had the idea for this post since the day we flipped the switch and made the site live. We all knew that the first hours of the project being live were going to get some of the heaviest traffic we would experience. We wanted to do a little analysis of how that traffic came and left the site, we collected a small set of data over the first five days of the project in order to look at this. First things first, take a look at global the Notes from Nature contributors were over just the first five days (click to see in interactive map)!

Next, we thought it would be fun to take a look at how the site accumulated new users over the time after launch,

We see the expected, early gains in user numbers followed by a slower accumulation later in the week. After the really early spike in transcriptions that came with all the users, we saw a nice continuous growth of total transcription activity through the week.

We thought it would be pretty neat to look at the transcriptions coming in at different times of day from our two primary regions, North America and Europe.

The above graph’s X axes is in EST, so you can see a nice rhythm to the Notes from Nature transcription. We really like this graph and will love to see it play out over the course of a year or more! We built the above graphs with D3 and CartoDB, if you click on them you can see each one and take a look at the code used to create them.

So how is Notes from Nature doing more recently? Well, in the first five days we had around 5000 unique participants. In the past two weeks we have had just over 3200. Not bad! Projects like Notes from Nature usually get a lot of members early that don’t end up sticking around, but we have done well to keep them or create new ones over the small time period. Our biggest audiences are still overwhelmingly in the USA and UK.

Right now, we are averaging 1400 classifications per day! As we improve the interface and add new and interesting components to the mission, we think we can see a growth in this number, but we are really happy with it so far. We have completely finished, including replicate transcriptions, 12% of our records in only two months! We will have more records in the future, but hopefully we will have a bigger community working with us too. We are closing in on 200,000 transcription, which is going to be an amazing achievement. Thanks to all of you who are helping us do something amazing for biodiversity research, museum informatics, and science!

Notes from Nature Team Member: Aly Seeberger

Name: Aly Seeberger

Title: Graduate Student in Museum & Field Studies

Where do you work primarily? As a graduate assistant in the Zoology collections for the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

What you do in your day job? Anything and everything, from skinning and prepping specimens to cataloging and data entry. Once I carried a taxidermied egret across campus and someone asked me if it was alive.

What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?  My role with NfN is primarily “interested party”, but I have helped with some of the text development and beta testing for the program. I hope to integrate NfN and its users into my master’s thesis, with deals with citizen science participants’ motivations. This research will benefit the citizen science community at large by making it easier for institutions to identify and fulfill the needs of participating citizen scientists, and by satisfying these users so that their work with citizen science projects is as rewarding as it can be.

What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view? There is essentially nothing about citizen science that I don’t find exciting, but I think for me the best part of these projects is the potential for exposure to “real science” in a way that few people get, especially those who don’t work in scientific disciplines. There is something about seeing a scan of a museum ledger, a piece of ancient papyrus or a ship’s log, that makes this data real in a way that I think really makes it meaningful. For us, museum records themselves may not be so thrilling, but even those are a glimpse into a behind-the-scenes part of the field that few people have access to, and that is a huge draw as well as a really interesting and rewarding experience.

Profile of Notes from Nature Team Member: Mike Denslow

Name: Mike Denslow

Title: Assistant Director for Scientific Research Collections

Where do you work primarily? The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

What you do in your day job? I am responsible for the archiving of biological samples collected as part of NEON’s field activities. Archiving is the act of safely saving and making available samples for use in research. NEON is an ecological observatory that will have 60 field sites across the Unites States (including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico) where ecological information will be collected for at least the next 30 years. These samples represent a range of organisms from mammals and plants to soils and zooplankton, just to name a few.   Now-a-days archiving not only deals with physical specimens and their safe keeping but also the digital information that goes along with them. For this reason, I am also concerned with capturing information about these sample in a digital format and making sure that it accessible on the internet for interested people to find and easily utilize.

What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?   My primary role at Notes From Nature is to bring in photographs of plant collections from various plant museums (called herbaria). I am also responsible for providing feedback on the design of the web interface for the project.   I am interested in developing new ways to make more information from museum specimens available for people to discover and use. My hope is that people will also appreciate the importance of museums in the process. There is a wealth of existing information about biodiversity that is not currently available in easily usable formats. It is critical that new ways of getting this information are developed and Notes From Nature is one exciting way that this is being done.

What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view?  I really enjoy seeing the things that people notice about museum specimens and the questions that get generated from these observations. The contributors to Notes From Nature find all kinds of interesting things both on the labels and the specimens themselves. I am really enjoying interacting with people on the Talk page and it is helping me see museum specimens in a whole new way.

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: Andrew Sallans

Name:  Andrew Sallans

Title:  Head of Strategic Data InitiativesAndrew

Where do you work primarily?  University of Virginia Library

What you do in your day job?  Unlike most of my Notes from Nature colleagues, I am not in a research or teaching position, and instead focus my energy on building services to support data-intensive research, working with researchers on data management problems, and facilitating the management, access, use, and preservation of research data with UVA researchers.  

What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?  I’ve been involved with Notes from Nature from its inception, having been the lead PI on a proposal to Zooniverse on behalf of SERNEC.  I’ve been working with SERNEC for around 6 years now, with an eye towards digitizing the local UVA biological collections and providing a proper, broader long-term home for the digital data output.  The opportunity to partner with the Essig Museum and Natural History Museum teams has been a real pleasure and opportunity to see other approaches for increasing access to biological collections, digitization methods, metadata standards, cataloging approaches, and general collection challenges.  I believe that these experiences will all be beneficial as we continue to develop and evolve research collection management strategies here at UVA.

What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view?  This project has been exciting in many, many ways.  Although I’m not in the role of a scientist, I’ve had the privilege of interacting directly with many collections over the past decade in order to help manage and preserve those collections.  I’ve always loved being able to closely examine, understand, interpret, and contextualize items in collections, but this is something most people are never exposed to.  Even with many new programs to increase STEM research and education, it’s sometimes hard to develop enthusiasm when direct contact with science is sometimes too dangerous or costly for the student or scientific object; I’ve seen the same be true in libraries (ie. lack of interest in history because it’s all behind glass).  Zooniverse projects like Notes from Nature offer an excellent opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to scientific progress by completing critical tasks at a massive scale, while simultaneously having an opportunity to interact quite closely (ie. high-quality images are almost as good as the real thing!) with many specimen and the expert scientists and managers who work with them each day.  I’m hopeful that we’ll inspire new researchers and research projects and create some great conversations between those who are passionate about science.

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!

Profile of Notes from Nature Team Member: Rob Guralnick

Name:  Rob Guralnick

Title:  Curator of Zoology at the CU Museum of Natural History ( and Associate Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (


Where do you work primarily?  My research and interests in understanding large scale patterns of biodiversity take me across the globe, typically with laptop in hand.  Field ecological research has remained focused in the Western United States, in terrestrial and freshwater environs. I am a “taxon generalist” and work in the lab has ranged from viruses and parasites, to freshwater bivalves, to alpine mammal species such as pikas.


What you do in your day job?  My day job is very dynamic, and usually includes some mix of meetings, both in person and virtual with students, collaborators, colleagues, etc.  When not in meetings, I teach classes, oversee student work in my lab, and if I am super lucky, get to work on touching data and analyses in the realm of biodiversity research and informatics.   What I most enjoy is getting a chance to pull together all the pieces involved in doing research and writing that up.


What’s your role with NfN and what do you hope to gain from it?  If relevant, how will your research benefit?  I (and the CU Museum) have been involved in Notes from Nature from the very beginning.  I owe a lot of that interest to a former PhD student, Andrew Hill, who kept trying to get it through my thick skull that citizen science was going to be transformational in the study of ecology and biodiversity.  Regarding what I hope to gain –  two very different interests and research threads tie together with this project.  One is a Museum-centric thread related to how Museums work with volunteers and build communities – I love that my job is diverse and includes museology as well the biodiversity research component.  The issues of motivation and interest are important and I see the life sciences integrating more firmly with social and library and information science into the future.  The other thread is that I work directly on how to assemble a globally coherent view of biodiversity and where our knowledge is best and worst.   But getting this coherent picture requires understanding all the problems and limitations with messy and incomplete data.  Notes from Nature promises to be a key way to get high quality mobilized for use.  So, Notes from Nature is both a research project all on its own, and feeds essential data we need to do the biodiversity science in the 21st century.


What’s the most exciting aspect of citizen science work from your point-of-view?     The most exciting thing for me is bringing one aspect of the job of working in a Museum out from collections spaces and into this neat, new Internet-scale world in which many of us live.   I love the idea of people seeing all these cool specimens, and adding to our collective knowledge of the living world.   I also am excited to just be involved, to connect, using new tools and approaches.

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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