WeDigFlowering I complete


Enormous thanks to all who participated in the experimental Coreopsis phenology project! I was blown away by your dedication through this new challenge, and I can’t wait to start analyzing the data for trends in flowering and fruiting times. I am also excited to investigate how citizen scientists’ phenological determinations compare to one another and to those of “experts” on the species; perhaps citizen science could be a transformative method for specimen-based studies of phenology!

If you participated in this expedition, we especially want to hear your thoughts on how to improve phenology-related tasks in the future. Please comment or chat with us about what you liked or didn’t like, what helped you most and how you would suggest improving training and the overall experience.

Be on the lookout for new phenology expeditions in the near future, which will likely feature a new segment of plant diversity. Thanks again!

Katelin D. Pearson, Curator, R. K. Godfrey Herbarium (FSU)



Updated FAQ and Useful tools: Herbarium Interface (version 3)

The following is an updated FAQ that includes the topics covered in our previous Notes from Nature FAQ post.

We are most thankful to our dedicated volunteers, who not only made great suggestions to improve and clarify some important issues, but have also completed over 490,000 transcriptions the majority of which are on the herbarium interface. These transcriptions are now being added to the SERNEC project portal on a regular basis. After that they may also be picked up by “aggregators” such as GBIF and iDigBio.

Note that this FAQ only covers issues related to the Herbarium interface. While this FAQ will cover the majority of Herbarium expeditions we always recommend reading the tutorial and help text when starting a new expedition.

1.) Interpretation: In general, you should minimize interpretation of open-ended fields and enter information verbatim. This way, we can better achieve consensus when checking multiple records against one another (see below, on that process). However, some discretion would be nice. Here are examples:

Interpretation that you should make: Simple spacing and capitalization errors (e.g. “3miN. of oakland” should be “3 mi N. of Oakland”).

Interpretation you should leave to us: Don’t interpret abbreviations, we’ll sort that out. (e.g. “Convict Lk.”).

2.) Non-English text: While we are currently focused on English language labels, on occasion you may encounter labels in other languages. Transcribe these exactly as written (do not translate to English). Match label content to transcription fields as best as you can. There is a helpful list of comment accent marks later in this document.

3.) Spelling mistakes: Transcribe exactly as written, unless you have looked it up and are absolutely certain of a simple spelling mistake. In this case, you can enter the correct spelling. When you make a correction, please use the Done&Talk button to add a comment describing the change; it’s also recommended that you provide a reliable web citation for the change if it’s anything other than a spelling correction of a common word. You can include #error or another relevant hashtag in your comment to flag the type of correction you made.

4.) Problem records: If you come across a problem record that may need to be addressed by a Researcher, or member of the project team, like a faulty image or other problem record, you can flag the record by commenting on it with #error or another relevant hashtag.

5.) Capitalization: Sometimes information may be in all capital letters on the labels. Unless this is an abbreviation, you should capitalize only the first letter of every word in your transcription (e.g. “COASTAL PLAIN PROVINCE” should be transcribed as “Coastal Plain Province”).

6.) Multiple/conflicting information: Some labels may have more than one instance of a piece of information, such as:

  • Scientific names: For Herbarium specimens, transcribe only the most recent name. This can be determined based on the date that appears on the “annotation label” If you do not see a date then enter the name that appears on the primary label. The “determination label” or later added determination information should have everything spelled out, however this is not always the case. If the first letter is the same it is safe to assume the same genus is being used. Here is an example. In the case of the linked image, “D.” abbreviates “Dryopteris”, so you would enter “Dryopteris intermedia”.
  • Collectors: In some cases, collectors may be listed on different lines of the label with no punctuation separating them. In your transcription, separate the names with commas. Transcribe the collector names as shown on the label, including honorifics (Mrs., Dr.). It isn’t uncommon for museums to have individual ways of entering collectors’ names so it is always best to review the help text for this specific field.
  • Collector numbers: ie “123 & 4567” This could indicate that each collector gave the specimen a different number in the field. This is an uncommon practice and even when it happens it usually doesn’t go on the same label, but if you find one it should be entered exactly as is.
  • Dates or date/day ranges: You should enter the earliest date listed only. Multiple dates are uncommon on herbarium labels so in most expeditions we choose to collect only one date. It is worth noting the convention in other collecting disciplines is to take a range of dates (e.g. insects in CalBug) but it isn’t for herbarium specimens.
  • Locations: If a specimen is cultivated at one location from cuttings/seeds/rhizomes collected at a different location, enter the place where the specimen was cultivated in the Location field and enter the place where the seeds were collected in the Habitat and Description field.

7.) Missing information: When information in a Herbarium field is not given on the specimen label, you should leave the field blank (in the case of text entry fields) or select “Unknown” or “Not Shown” in the drop-down lists. If information on the specimen label has been verified to be missing from an Herbarium field dropdown list please advise with a Talk post. There are two well-known caveats for this:

  • Dade county (Florida, United States) appears to be missing from the County list, but it is present and should be transcribed as “Miami-Dade” (it was renamed in 1997).
  • Ivory Coast appears to be missing from the Country list, but it is present and should be transcribed as its French name “Cote d’Ivoire”.

8.) Inconsistent collector names: You may see several variations of the same collector name (e.g. “R. Kral” or “R.Kral”, “RWG” or “R.W.Garrison”) on different labels. We are asking for the collector name(s) to be transcribed as written on the label. This is a somewhat complicated issue since same collectors might appear to be very similar but aren’t always the same. It can take a lot of knowledge about the collector and where they deposited specimens to be able to make a definitive decision.

Interpretation that you should make: Simple spacing or capitalization errors (e.g. “R.kral” should be “R. Kral”)

Interpretation you should leave to us: Don’t interpret abbreviations, we’ll sort that out. (e.g. “RWG” should remain “RWG”)

9.) Scientific name: Provide the most recent name, whether it is a species name (a two-word combination of the genus and what is called the “specific epithet” in botanical nomenclature) or a one-word name that is at a higher taxonomic rank (e.g., just the genus or family name). Names at higher taxonomic ranks than species are used when a more precise identification has not been made. The name should typically take the form of a genus name that begins with a capital letter (genus) and a specific epithet that begins with a lowercase letter. If any of the names are given in all capitals, such as “CYPERUS ODORATUS”, the name should be entered using the typical convention, “Cyperus odoratus” in this case.

Varieties and subspecies: Record the subspecies, but omit the scientific author’s names. So “Cyperus odoratus var. squarrosus (Britton) Jones, Wipff & Carter” should be transcribed as “Cyperus odoratus var. squarrosus”. “Echinodorus cordifolius (Linnaeus) Grisebach ssp. cordifolius” should be transcribed as “Echinodorus cordifolius ssp. cordifolius”.

Be sure to reference #6 above for information related to annotation labels.

10.) Special Characters: What should you type when there is a special character in a text string, such as a degree symbol or language-specific characters? You can do an online search for the symbol or copy and paste it from your word processor’s symbols menu. Some commonly encountered symbols are included at the end of this document.

11.) County: If the county is not stated on the label, please find the appropriate county using an online search or other tools highlighted below. However, if there are multiple potential counties for a locality and it can’t be determined which is correct, please choose the Unknown County option from the County dropdown for U.S. locations; otherwise leave County blank.

12.) Splitting Location and Habitat: Often location and habitat terms will be mixed together, even being interleaved in the same sentence. Some simple guidelines when splitting them apart into separate fields to try to ensure consensus:

  • Most times, general/non-specific locales are Habitat, and specific ones are Location, as only very rarely is a species found in the one place the specimen was obtained from (examples: “along road” would be Habitat as it describes the environment the plant grows in, but “along Smith Road” would be location as it describes the specific road where this specimen was found. “Bank of Smith River” would be split into “Bank” Habitat and “Smith River” Location.) In general, there is no need to repeat information in the two fields.
  • Don’t introduce punctuation if possible, instead use what is there; sentences need not end with terminal punctuation (i.e., a period or exclamation point) if there is nothing after. There may be occasions when leaving it out would change the meaning of the text, in those cases it’s OK to make an addition.
  • Drop unnecessary dangling non-terminal punctuation as needed. For example, “Dry roadside, east of Smithville” would result in “Dry roadside” Habitat, dropping the dangling comma as it is doesn’t terminate a sentence properly, but “Dry roadside. East of Smithville.” would keep the period to “Dry roadside.” Habitat as it does terminate the sentence.
  • Capitalize new sentences (as in the example above) caused by the split.
  • Data that goes into Habitat/Description:
    • Added information in later labels: occasionally in a later determination the scientist will add information about the specimen, i.e., its condition or maturity; this should be included after the primary label’s data (this also applies to other fields as well though it is far less likely to find additional info for them)
    • Floodplain describes a habitat. This often occurs with a river name, so for “Mississippi River floodplain”, include of the text in the Habitat field. Since in this case it wouldn’t be accurate to just have “Mississippi River” in the locality field.
    • Power lines: as they may help narrow a location but say more about the habitat in which the plant grows as power line corridors are usually cleared of larger shrubs and trees.
    • “n=” followed by a number; this is the number of chromosomes.
  • Elevation/Altitude information should be entered into the Location field, if there isn’t a separate field for Elevation. Enter elevation verbatim in the units stated on the label.
  • Data that goes into Location:
    • Latitude and Longitude: Enter exactly as written. See special characters below for how to generate the degree symbol ° (or you can copy it right from here).
    • Public Land Survey System: This is the T (township), R (range) and S (section) data used to establish location. For example, SW1/4 NW1/4 S13, T1SR20E refers to the southwest quarter of the northwest quarter of Section 13 of Township 1 South Range 20 East). Quarter sections “1/4” should be written as 3 characters, not one (¼).
    • Provinces: Geographic provinces (e.g., Coastal Plain, Piedmont) go into the Location field but administrative provinces of countries (e.g., Alberta in Canada) go in the State/Province field.

14.) Information to Omit/Skip: The following data should not be transcribed (unfortunately, for the sake of consensus, even if you want to). However if you do find something interesting, feel free to use Done&Talk to post a comment about it.

  • Synonyms listed adjacent to the primary determination (example: for “Cyperus echinatus [=C. ovularis]” only transcribe “Cyperus echinatus”)
  • Common names of species; as many species have multiple common names, some of which are only locally used.
  • Information printed into the label/template and not added by the collector, unless it both isn’t present in the data the collector added, and would be transcribed if it was (for example, a “Plants of Florida” label title wouldn’t be transcribed as the data would already indicate Florida in the State field, but “Plants of Fort Smith” title should be entered as “Fort Smith” in Location if this wasn’t present elsewhere).
  • Information already entered into one of the dropdown fields. For example, if the label indicates “collected in Smithville, Jones Co.” because county ”Jones” will already be chosen in the dropdown“, Jones Co.” shouldn’t also be transcribed into the Location text as this would be redundant. However if it has “found in northern Jones Co.” then this should be transcribed verbatim into Location as well, as it is new information and would be meaningless if “Jones Co.” was removed.
  • “Collected as part of a survey…” and similar “This specimen was examined as part of a study of…” entries, as it is part of a series of information that relates to annotations of the specimens and is not considered to be core information that we are trying to collect.
  • “Sheet # of #” entries or other information indicating that this specimen is part of a set
  • Hyphens that break a word across two lines. For example “speci-” at the end of a line and “men” at the beginning of the next line would be transcribed as “specimen” without the hyphen.
  • Personal comments by the collector that do not relate to the specimen.

15) “s.n.” as the collector number; this stands for the Latin sine numerum meaning “without number”. In this case you should enter “s.n.” in the Collector Number field.

Some Useful Tools (discovered or developed by Notes From Nature users)

Counties and Cities: Good tools for finding counties etc. are lists on Wikipedia, there are lists of municipalities in each state of the U.S.A. (there are also similar lists for other countries). For example, (via the linkbox you can also change the state).


Uncertain Localities: Geographic Names Information System, U.S. Geological Survey.

For locations outside the U.S.:

Mapping tool with topo quads: To find uncertain counties or localities

Collector Names: Harvard University Herbarium maintains a database of collectors ( Note that many collectors that are encountered may not be in this database.

Hard-to-read text: Use “Sheen”, the visual webpage filter, for some hard-to-read handwriting written in pencil. (Tip was from the War Diary Zooniverse project)

Special symbols: You should be able to find symbols in word or by doing an online search and copy and paste. Here are a few:

–  degree symbol for coordinates:

– plus minus: ±

– fractions: ⅛ ¼ ⅓ ⅜ ½ ⅝ ⅔ ¾ ⅞

– non-English symbols: Ä ä å Å ð ë ğ Ñ ñ õ Ö ö Ü ü Ž ž

Other symbols may be found on Penn State’s Symbol Codes: Accents, Symbols and Foreign Scripts page:

ClipX: Freeware Windows clipboard enhancer that saves the last 1,024 items copied to the clipboard and allows them to be pasted through its icon in the system tray. Nothing short of a lifesaver for Ornithology but quite helpful in Herbarium too:

The Plant List: Search for scientific names of plants –

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS): Along with The Plant List, another recognized resource for plant scientific names (as well as animals, fungi, bacteria and more)


Dates: If all parts of the date are written with numerals and it’s unclear which part is the day and which is the month (for example, 2-4-91) identifies which date format (day-month-year or month-day-year) is commonly used in each country.

Mr Kevvy has generated a very useful set of custom dictionaries. They can be found here:

These dictionaries are a wonderful resource. It should be noted that scientific names can have gender based differences. You will see the specific epithet (commonly called the “species name”) with male and female genera spellings. An example albiflora is feminine and albiflorus is masculine. The Carolina-poppy is Argemone albiflora (not albiflorus). Both albiflora and albiflorus are correctly spelled, but in this case albiflorus should never be used with the genus Argemone.


Understanding A Critical Symbiosis: Nitrogen Fixing in Plants II

In this expedition, we are partnering with The Ohio State University herbarium, covering global nitrogen-fixing diversity, especially Andean and Patagonian species, to help unlock biodiversity data in plants with nitrogen-fixing symbioses. This will help us understand the symbiosis from the genetic level to ecology. All the specimens you are helping to transcribe will also be used to generate genomic data, in order to help us further understand the underlying basis of this symbiosis. The label data are also important for helping us understand how the environment and geography have shaped this symbiosis. Your contributions will help us build one of the largest biodiversity projects yet attempted to understand the origin of this globally important plant trait.

We have mentioned how important nitrogen fixing symbioses are, and we hope this short video explains further just how important for plants such as Acacia:

Acacia from Rob Guralick on Vimeo.

A new publication about WeDigBio

We are excited to announce that a new paper about WeDigBio was published today in the journal BioScience. As a reminder WeDigBio stands for Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections. It is a global event that focuses on digitizing of natural history museum specimens, which is something we care very deeply about. It’s an event we look forward to every year at Notes from Nature.

The following Press Release was generated by Kristin Friedrich at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Please note that the publication itself is Open Access, so anyone should be available to download and read it.

Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections: WeDigBio

The future of digitizing museum collections


During the Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections, thousands of citizen scientists around the world completed over 50,000 digitization tasks. NHMLA Crustacea Collections Manager Adam Wall assists volunteers with digitization, closely supervised by a zebra specimen in the NHMLA Age of Mammals Exhibit.


Los Angeles, CA, January 17, 2018 — In an effort to make biological collections more accessible for researchers and the public, many natural history museums are prioritizing the digitization of their collections. The digitization process involves making information about a specimen available on an accessible database — things like when and where it was collected, the species name, and sometimes a photo or 3D image of the specimen or object.

These collections are a record of biodiversity over time. They provide data that can be mined to investigate climate and ecological change, inform conservation efforts, understand population genetics and evolution, and inform education and policy decisions. But they can’t be used if people can’t access them. The more institutions digitize their extensive collections, the better.

“Adding digital data to analog specimens is a critical step in mobilizing museum collections for use in timely research, education and policy,” said Dr. Libby Ellwood, research fellow at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

To that end, from October 22-25, 2015, 21 science institutions held the first global citizen-science event focused on the digitization of biodiversity specimens. The sites — including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA, which includes the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum), Florida State University, Smithsonian’s National Natural History Museum, the Field Museum, the Australian Museum, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and many others — hosted events in which members of the community came behind the scenes into museum collections to transcribe specimen labels and enter the information online on platforms like Notes from Nature, DigiVol, Smithsonian Transcription Center, Les Herbonautres, and Symbiota. Others participated remotely by logging onto these online platforms to transcribe labels and enter data. During this Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections (, thousands of community scientists around the world completed over 50,000 digitization tasks.

Today, in their evaluation of the programs, researchers report in BioScience that participants stayed engaged long after the initial event was over. Since these online platforms can be accessed anytime from anywhere, this heightened engagement provided ongoing assistance to the massive task of collection digitization.

“WeDigBio provides museums and natural history collections the opportunity to engage with local communities and the online public while providing enriching and enjoyable experiences for participants,” said Ellwood.

While many museums around the world are currently pushing to digitize as much of their collections as possible, with over a billion specimens housed at museums around the world, the magnitude of this task presents a significant hurdle for museum staff. It is common for collections to house hundreds of thousands or even millions of specimens. Depending on the type of organism or object, it can be stored in a variety of ways — suspended in alcohol in a jar, laying flat in a drawer, or hanging in special climate-controlled storage. The digitization of 2-dimensional objects is the most straightforward, as they can be scanned with relative ease. But 3-D objects can be especially challenging. Labels that contain all the information about an item — some of which were penned over 100 years ago — are sometimes difficult to read, or in the case of wet specimens in jars, curled up inside a vial within a large container of, say, 100 crabs.

“To digitize these items, someone has to physically pick up, remove the labels and unfurl them, then read and transcribe the information inside, so automation or assembly line systems are nearly impossible to implement,” says Dr. Regina Wetzer, Associate Curator of the NHMLA’s Marine Biodiversity Center.

This is a perfect job for a broad, diverse community of enthusiastic people, also known as community or citizen scientists. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear to many institutions that the most feasible way to chip away at these enormous digitization projects is to involve the public. This is a symbiotic arrangement: museums receive much-needed assistance, and members of the community get rare behind-the-scenes access to these science and cultural institutions and enjoy the opportunity to learn more about science, nature, and culture.

“In NHMLA’s project, digitizing labels from about a thousand big crabs, we were really delighted at the level of enthusiasm and commitment that the participants contributed,” said Dean Pentcheff, an NHMLA Project Coordinator.

The next WeDigBio event is scheduled for October 2018.

“Since 2015, WeDigBio has grown and expanded to include new museum-based projects, participants in new countries, and even new transcription platforms,” said Ellwood. “We’re already looking forward to our October 2018 event and hope you’ll join us!”



An example of the specimens volunteers were digitizing during the WeDigBio event at NHMLA, called the “Crab Shack” project.

About the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has amassed one of the world’s most extensive and valuable collections of natural and cultural history—with more than 35 million objects, some as old as 4.5 billion years. The Natural History Family of Museums includes the NHMLA, the La Brea Tar Pits Museum (Hancock Park/Mid-Wilshire), and the William S. Hart Park and Museum (Newhall, California). The Family of Museums serves more than one million families and visitors annually, and is a national leader in research, exhibitions and education. Visit


The Natural History Museum’s Digital Collections Programme

Crowdsourcing our data in 2017

The Digital Collections Programme at the Natural History Museum in London

The Digital Collections Programme has run two crowdsourcing projects on Notes from Nature in 2017. We wanted to say a massive thank-you to the 2,000+ volunteers who together have helped us to capture data from over 15,000 specimens this year. You have made a significant contribution to Science.

1) collage for blog

Crowdsourcing our data in 2017

We can digitally image individual microscope slides at a rate of up to 1000 slides per day, but we still need help with capturing the label information on each slide. Transcription is an essential part of our digitisation process.

By reading the labels and typing information such as the collection date and location into the relevant data fields, our digital volunteers make it possible for us to release this data freely and openly on the Museum’s Data Portal. This data is available worldwide for researchers to study and explore.

Over the past year we showcased our crowdsourcing projects at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, Science Uncovered 2017 and the global WeDigBio transcription event. We have also hosted 14 Visiteering Days, in which over 120 people took part. Anyone interested in taking part in our one-day Visiteering programme to support the Museum’s work can register online here.

The Killer Within: Wasps, but not as you know them

Fairy fly

Fairyflies average at only 0.5 to 1.0 mm long

Our first crowdsourcing project within the Digital Collections Programme consisted of 6,285 microscope slides containing tiny parasitoid wasps called chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. Chalcids are the natural enemies of many insect pest species that damage our food crops, and are therefore used commercially as biological control agents.

Thanks to the help of over 1,300 digital volunteers for the Museum, the scientific information contained on these microscope slide labels have now been fully transcribed and are currently being processed for publication on the Data Portal.

From this data we learned that John S. Noyes, formerly of the Natural History Museum and developer of the Universal  Chalcidoidea Database, was our most active collector, that the majority of the specimens were collected in the 1980s and that the UK is the most prominently represented country in this collection.

Recently, we have been digitising the Museum’s parasitic louse slide collection – consisting of 70,667 slides at present. For each specimen, the whole slide has been imaged in to capture both the specimen and the labels.

From this collection we have isolated two subsets of louse specimens for two different crowdsourcing projects, each of which trialled a new platform for the transcription effort: lice from marsupial mammals – ‘Boopidae of Australasia’, hosted on DigiVol, and Lice of the Open Oceans, hosted on the Zooniverse.


Miniature Fossils Magnified: The smallest shells in the ocean

world oceans day

Foraminifera can help us learn how our ocean has changed over 500 million years

Our Miniature Fossils Magnified project features a collection of ~ 3,000 microscopic fossils, called foraminifera (or forams for short), embedded in slices of rock. The Museum has a strong tradition of foraminifera research dating back to the late 1800s, and the foraminifera collection – with approximately 250,000 slides – is one of the the most extensive in the world.

Foraminifera are microscopic single-celled organisms with shells (called tests), found in both modern and ancient marine environments. They either live on the sea bottom (benthic) or float in the upper water column (planktonic).

The 600+ digital volunteers have been helping to transcribe this label data so far and enabling research that can help us learn how our environment, climate and ocean have changed over 500 million years.

This project is almost complete, and with your help, we can start processing all of this data in the new year. As we process this data we look forward to sharing this data with you, and telling you of the scientific research that has thus been made possible.

If you have a few minutes to donate over the coming days, do join us on Notes from Nature to help finish off the Miniature Fossils Magnified Project. In the new year there will be new projects to join, and more outcomes to report.

Second Expedition Studying Impact of Climate Change on Orange Sulphur Butterflies

Hello again! Thank you everyone for your help with my first expedition entering label data for the Orange Sulphur (and if you’re new to the project, welcome!). The first expedition went really well, and I’ve photographed a lot of specimens that need label data, so I’m starting a second expedition. For the second expedition, I’m using specimens from the University of Florida’s McGuire Center (It turns out they have a lot from all over the US).

The research focus remains the same as our first expedition: Orange Sulphurs have many generations each year, and their wing patterns vary seasonally across generations. The underside of their wings are dark during spring and fall, helping them warm themselves, and then lighter during summer to avoid overheating. Climate change, however, is altering the relationship between day length—which the butterflies use to determine their adult wing pattern—and the actual temperatures the butterflies will encounter. I want to know if evolution has helped the butterflies adjust to these changes (see my previous post for more details).

For this expedition, I want to share some more details on our predictions for how these butterflies might adapt to climate change by altering the seasonal variation in wing pattern. We have three main hypotheses:

  1. Producing the summer form on shorter days: The warming world effectively makes summer longer. To adjust, the butterflies could change how they respond to daylength. Normally, the butterflies produce the summer form if they experience long days as a caterpillar. In response to climate change, evolution could decrease the hours of daylight required to switch to the summer form, resulting in summer-form butterflies appearing earlier in spring and lasting later into fall.
  2. Lighter winter coloration: Instead of changing when their wing pattern changes, instead the wing patterns themselves could change, becoming lighter to be more appropriate in a warming climate. While the summer form can’t get much lighter, the spring/fall form can, so we expect to see a greater change then.
  3. Respond to temperature: Daylength indicates time of year, which was historically a better predictor of the weather weeks from now than the current temperature in most temperate climates. With climate change, however, daylength isn’t as good a predictor any more. Instead, temperature may now be a (relatively) better cue and the butterflies could have switched to using it. Some related species already use temperature instead of daylength to control similar changes. It will be hard to test this hypothesis using natural history specimens, but I’m planning additional lab experiments to test it by raising caterpillars with different temperature and light conditions to see which forms the produce.

Right: Colias eurytheme summer form (underside),

Left: Colias eurytheme spring/fall form (underside)

We could also find a combination of these predictions has occurred. Regardless, the world is warming extremely fast, so the butterflies may not be able to keep up. As another part of this project, I’m working with my advisor (Dr. Joel Kingsolver at University of North Carolina) to create a mathematical model to predict the ideal wing pattern for an Orange Sulphur butterfly depending on climate, accounting for the effect of both seasons and climate change. We plan to use this model to determine if the changes you are helping us find using museum collections are enough to keep up with climate change or if the butterflies are falling behind.

— Matthew Nielsen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Understanding A Critical Symbiosis: Nitrogen Fixing in Plants


Atmospheric nitrogen is essential to all life, but in this form is inaccessible to all plants and animals. Much of life is limited by naturally occurring “fixation” of nitrogen, that is, rendering this element bioavailable, and this is particularly limiting for human agriculture. Nitrogen-fixing symbioses — the relationships some plants like legumes and their relatives have with nitrogen-fixing bacteria — allow legume crops to grow in poor soils without enough nitrogen to support competing plants. Understanding how this symbiosis works could reduce fertilizer use, reducing the high energy cost of fertilizer production, limiting agricultural runoff, and securing the food supply in arid parts of the globe.

One of the remarkable aspects of this globally important symbiosis is how plants able to commence it are closely clustered relatives in the Tree of Life. Although clustered, some plants within this group have the symbiosis and some don’t. It has long been thought that all plants that are part of this cluster, whether they express the symbiosis or not, share an unknown genetic mechanism that enables this plant-bacterium relationship. Researchers are slowly starting to unravel this mystery, using a combination of genomic tools and data about where these species are found.

In this expedition, we are partnering with the New York Botanical Garden to help unlock biodiversity data in plants with nitrogen-fixing symbioses as captured by museum specimens to understand the symbiosis from the genetic level to ecology. All the specimens you are helping to transcribe will also be used to generate genomic data, in order to help us further understand the underlying basis of this symbiosis. The label data are also important for helping us understand how the environment and geography have shaped this symbiosis. Your contributions will help us build one of the largest biodiversity projects yet attempted to understand the origin of this globally important plant trait.