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Help Study Parasite Biodiversity from Home

If you are sitting at home watching wildlife from your kitchen window, you are witnessing several levels of biodiversity that cannot be seen through binoculars. Birds and mammals are hosts to many different parasites that live amongst their fur and feathers such as: lice, fleas, flies, ticks and mites. Most of these parasites are restricted to a single host, but some of these parasitic arthropods can vector pathogens that affect humans (for example, prairie dog fleas transmit the pathogen that causes plague). Yet, data about parasitic arthropods are underrepresented among digitized museum specimens, which makes them hard to find and study. To solve this void, 22 museums and institutions in North America have teamed up to digitize data for over 1.2 million parasite specimens in the next three years, including Dr. Sarah Bush, in the School of Biological Sciences.


“We have a collection with over 80,000 parasites from around the world,” Bush says.  “There are slides from extinct birds, new species, and new genera hidden in our collection, we just need help determining what we have.”  To digitize specimens, Bush and colleagues have turned to a citizen science platform called Notes from Nature, where anyone, anywhere can go online and help transcribe data from historic microscope slides.  “Our goal is to better understand the distribution and evolution of parasite diversity” explains Bush.  “By digitizing data from existing specimens, we are hoping to understand where these parasites occur? What hosts these parasites infest? Which parasites are most likely to vector pathogens to humans, and whether their distribution has changed over time?”

Citizen scientists involved in this project get to peek through the parasite collection.  “You never know what you’re going to find”, says Bush, “the slides you see may be new species of parasites from your backyard, or they might be a parasite collected 100+ years ago in the far reaches of New Guinea.”  We may be stuck at home, but this is a way to explore new levels of biodiversity that can be shared and studied by new generations of biologists.

If you are interested in helping with this citizen science project visit the “Terrestrial Parasite Tracker” project on the Notes from Nature website.

— The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker Team

Gray Matter: North American Geometrid Moths

We are launching a series of Expeditions called Gray Matter: North American Geometrid Moths! In this new expedition you will see multiple species and genera of North American Geometridae. This collection was curated by one of the North American experts, Dr. Charlie Covell.

The name Geometridae is derived from the Greek words “geo” (earth) and “metron” (measure). The caterpillar appears to ‘measure the ground’ as it moves, like a tiny walking tape measure, one inch at a time hence the name “inchworm”. Although the adult moths are often gray, and less colorful than their butterfly counterparts, they are widespread moths that are ecologically and economically important. Some Geometridae, such as cankerworms, are destructive pests of hardwood trees. Biston betularia moths (included in this expedition), have light and dark wing phenotypes, which have been used to study effects of industrial pollution. Their caterpillars also have multiple phenotypes; they can mimic different colors of twigs in order to more effectively camouflage on their host plants.

It is important to remember that you will be looking at two images per moth, dorsal and ventral. The reason for this is because there sometimes is critical information on the back of labels. So be sure to check both images! While checking both images, look at the amazing shapes and minute coloration of the moth. Thank you so much for your help!

— Laurel Kaminsky

Digitalization Coordinator, McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity

Presentations from some of our Scientists for WeDigBio Lite

We are excited to offer two presentations from our Notes from Nature scientists during WeDigBio Lite. WeDigBio Lite is taking place April 16th – 19th. On Thursday the 16th and Friday the 17th at 11am eastern we will offer presentations that are open to the community. More information and registration information can be found below.

Thursday April 16th 11am Eastern

Finding Wallace: Insect expeditions in the Malay Archipelago

Dr. Peter Oboyski, Essig Museum of Entomology

Our modern understanding of plant and animal distribution patterns (biogeography) date back to Alfred Russel Wallace, who collected insects and other organisms in Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1850’s. His discoveries and observations challenged the scientific community and inspired generations of biologists. Researchers at UC Berkeley are following in Wallace’s footsteps to conduct a biotic survey of the insects, spiders, birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Part of this five year project is to discover insect species new to science and document how their diversity changes over an elevation gradient on nine mountains scattered across the island. In this presentation, find out what it is like to spend 3-4 weeks living in a tent in the jungles of Indonesia to collect night-flying insects.

Register in advance for this meeting:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Note that we will not save your email and it will only be used for the purposes of this meeting.

Friday April 17th 11am Eastern

Comparing phenology annotation by in-person and Notes from Nature volunteers

Dr. Laura M. Brenskelle, University of Florida

In June and July 2019, the Notes from Nature community helped us complete two phenology annotation expeditions for Prunus (cherry) and Acer (maple) herbarium specimen images. These annotations for the presence or absence of fruits, flowers, and unfolded leaves were analyzed for accuracy and compared to in-person volunteers who performed a similar task on the same specimen images. Our findings include recommendations for how to maximize human effort in image annotation projects and demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages to in-person and Notes from Nature annotation approaches.

Register in advance for this meeting:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Note that we will not save your email and it will only be used for the purposes of this meeting.

Hope to see you there,

The Notes from Nature Team

WeDigBio Lite

Please join Notes from Nature for WeDigBio Lite coming April 16-19, 2020. WeDigBio is a global data campaign that mobilizes participants to create digital data about biodiversity specimens. This special WeDigBio event is “lite” because it will be online only (no onsite events).


Notes from Nature has been getting lots of interest from educators for use by students away from the classroom, from employees working remotely, and from people just looking for something fun and productive to do from home. As a result, we have lots of content on the site from butterflies and beetles to lice and of course lots of plants! We will also be adding more expeditions as we get closer to the event.

Educators can find resources on the WeDigBio education site. We are also planning some events over video conference so stay tuned for those as well.

If you are one of the fortunate ones who is safe at home, well stocked, connected online and has some extra time on your hands please spread the word and join us. We have a Facebook event that you can share with your friends and feel free to share your own ideas on the Notes from Nature Talk forum.

— The Notes from Nature Team

Introducing the The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker Project (TPT)

Let’s take a break from talking about the spread of coronavirus and turn our attention to other important vectors of diseases. Parasitic arthropods inflict an enormous burden on human society.  They afflict humans and the animals on which we depend. Fleas transmitted bubonic plague, mosquitoes vector malaria and dengue, and ticks transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Arthropods have vectored the parasites and pathogens that cause disease to hundreds of millions of people. Yet, this is not just the stuff of history, we are faced with similar issues today. In fact, vector borne diseases are increasing as the climate and ecosystems change. The Center for Disease Control (aka CDC) estimates “illnesses from mosquito, tick, and flea bites have tripled in the U.S., with more than 640,000 cases reported during the 13 years from 2004 through 2016.” Human movement, land use, and rapidly changing environments have contributed to both range expansion or distribution changes in many arthropod vector species and the recent surges in the diseases they transmit. Arthropod-borne pathogens can also have a significant impact on our livestock, which poses a serious threat to agriculture and food security globally. Our ability to understand and model the potential risk of parasites is hampered by a lack of baseline information.

Screen Shot 2020-04-01 at 2.22.29 PM

Data about parasitic arthropods are underrepresented among digitized specimens. This is because people tend to focus on charismatic animals (like big vertebrates). Although parasitism is one of the most common lifestyles on the planet, parasite data are not readily accessible. Parasite specimens exist, however, the collections can be difficult to find. Specimens of parasitic arthropods are often stored separately from invertebrate collections; they are kept in collections with their hosts, or in smaller collections held by specialist researchers around the country. These hidden collections tend to be data-rich collections that represent irreplaceable knowledge about past organismal habitats, distributions, and parasite-host associations.

The goal of the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker (TPT) project is to mobilize and digitally capture these parasite collections to help understand the host-associations, evolution, distribution, and the ecological interactions of these important vectors. These data will assist scientists, educators, land managers, and policy makers. We will focus on lice, fleas, ticks and mites, biting true bugs and biting flies. We have teamed up with 22 collections and institutions with the goal of digitizing over 1.2 million specimens over the next 3 years and we are excited to work with our Notes from Nature community to help make this project a success!

Check out our first expedition in the new TPT Project!

— Julie Allen University of Nevada, Reno

Field Book Update

As many of you are already aware, we have recently encountered some glitches with one of the Notes from Nature features called the Field Book. The Field Book is the place where Notes from Nature users can look at their personal statistics and the badges they have earned. We are very sorry about this glitch, but the good news is that we have a solution that deals with this problem!

Now each Notes from Nature Project will have a dedicated Field Book. The Field Book will collect information about your work and it will be organized by specific Projects, such as Southeastern U.S. Biodiversity or CalBug.

Your Field Book can be accessed using the link at the lower right of each Project’s landing page. The Field Book contains things like recent classifications, links to your Favorites and weekly statistics. The badge section not only contains the badges that you have earned, but you can also see your remaining badges (which are ones you are still working towards) and your progress towards them.

Your Field Book will show general statistics that reflect previous effort. However, the Field Book will be collecting information for things like time or decade badges starting now. While we acknowledge that this solution is not perfect, this is the best we are able to do right now. We still have the goal of a Notes from Nature wide Field Book that reflects all effort across our many Projects, but this capability will have to wait until we have additional developer resources.

We greatly appreciate everyone’s efforts on all of the Notes from Nature Projects. Thank you very much for all that you do!

The Notes from Nature Team

Kalmia, Lyonia and Chimaphila!


We are embarking upon this expedition not just because of Kalmia, Chimaphila, and Lyonia’s beauty, but also to enable work study students to work remotely during a time of college classes moving online. However, one does not have to be a work study student to work on this project. If you just love databasing, love pretty flowers, and/or are partial to North Carolina plants…this is the expedition for you!

All three of these plants are in the blueberry and heath family.  They differ noticeably in size from one another. From the wee Chimaphila at 5 inches tall…to the waist high Lyonia….and all the way up to the sub-canopy Kalmia. Enjoy these plants while databasing and, sometime, take a hike in the wilds of North Carolina and visit these plants. Chimaphila blooms in June. Lyonia blooms midsummer. Kalmia is usually in full bloom on Mothers’ day, so go looking for them and take your mum! We thank you for taking the time to database these specimens with us and take a walk on the pretty side.  The data from these plants help researchers from around the world view our specimens! Cheers!

You can find this new expedition the Southeastern U.S. Biodiversity Project on Notes from Nature.

— Shanna Oberreiter,  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Notes from Nature Update

Dear NfN Community,

It’s a difficult and uncertain time for many people around the world. We hope that this message finds everyone safe and healthy. We’ve been getting a lot of questions about the status of the platform during this time for use by students away from the classroom, for employees working remotely and so on. If you are one of the fortunate ones who is safe at home, well stocked, connected online and has some extra time on your hands, know that NfN is always open.

We have lots of expeditions to work on. There are currently 15 active expeditions in 6 different projects at this time. We even have a new and exciting project coming related to terrestrial parasites.

As always please feel free to ask questions or simply introduce yourself on Talk.

The Notes from Nature Team

Year end updates

You may notice some changes to the Notes from Nature webpage rolling out this week. The main Notes from Nature page is called the Organization landing page and takes users to all the Projects that are hosted on the Notes from Nature site. The updates related to the Organization model were outlined in a post back in May.

You can now see Active, Paused and Finished Projects. In addition, you can hide and show the details of those sections.

At Notes from Nature, we are particularly excited about another update that the Zooniverse is working on. It is a new page that will let you dive even deeper into an Organization’s statistics which will again show us statistics across all Notes from Nature Projects and expeditions. That page will be rolled out in early 2020.

If you have comment about the changes we encourage you to post in the Notes from Nature Talk Chat board.

— The Notes from Nature team

Calling all naturalists: We’re surveying salamander stripes!

Do you know what’s the most abundant terrestrial vertebrate in some areas of the United States? It’s not a species of mammal or bird, but  an amphibian! The Eastersn Red-backed Salamander is only a few inches long, but in some parts of its range its biomass outweighs that of white tailed deer. Despite how abundant they are, you’ve probably never seen one before as they live under rocks, logs, and in the soil of eastern deciduous forests. An interesting feature of this abundant salamander is its variation in color. When a plant or animal displays two or more color patterns (or morphs) this is known as color polymorphism. The Eastern Red-backed Salamander displays two color patterns, which are known as the “striped morph” and the “unstriped morph”. The striped morph has a red stripe running down the center of it’s black back, and the unstriped morph is uniformly black. 

Striped (left) and unstriped (right) morphs of the Eastern Red-backed Salamander.


Because of their abundance, the Eastern Red-backed Salamander is a well studied animal among biologists. Many individuals have been collected and deposited into museums over the last century, and thus, these collections provide an ideal opportunity for biologists to ask a series of questions on the evolution of this salamander. However, research is currently limited by the fact that the morph color was not indicated when salamanders were deposited into collections.

So that is where we need your help!  First of all, this new expedition is not as simple as looking for a red stripe.  When you preserve a salamander in alcohol for 50 years, which is how they are usually stored in museum collections, the once vibrant color disappears. However, the stripe doesn’t fade to black, it fades a lighter shade of pale.   So we are hoping you can help us find the striped morphs and sort them from the unstriped morphs. The crazy thing is that it isn’t like there are a few hundred or thousand of these Plethodon specimens in Museums.  One collector who deposited his collections in the Smithsonian actually collected nearly 100,000 salamanders.  We may not get around to photographing all of those, but your help with this batch both helps us move the science forward and it helps us with potentially developing machine learning approaches so that we can eventually automate stripe detection.  

With help from amazing citizen scientists, once we have color morph information from photographs, we can then use this data to ask unanswered biological questions. For example, we can see if the frequency of the color morphs has changed over time and if they do, we can test if there’s a relationship between the change in color morph frequency with changing climate. In addition, we can see if there’s a relationship between a particular color morph with particular ecological setting. Ultimately, this information will contribute to our growing knowledge of the relationship between color variation and diversity. 

For more information on the Eastern Red-backed Salamander, we suggest you check out AmphibiaWeb: 

Another blog post on the Eastern Red-backed Salamander by an amazing undergraduate student (Kyle Brooks) that previously worked with the author and also contributed photos for this post and the Notes for Nature project. Thanks, Klye! 

And finally, another project we could use your help with: 

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