CU-Boulder helps tap crowds to digitize museum records of bugs and plants

Inside the natural history museums of the world are billions of animal and plant specimens from birds, fish and beetles to flowers, mushrooms and grasses, all stacked, stored and preserved in jars and collection drawers.

The rich and diverse collections could be critical to understanding how the Earth’s biodiversity is changing in the face of a growing human footprint — if only the information were easily accessible.

A new online project, brought to life with the help of a team from the University of Colorado Boulder, is using citizen scientists to help solve the problem. Notes from Nature, www.notesfromnature.org, allows anyone with a curiosity for natural history, a computer and a little time to transcribe the often hand-scrawled tags attached to each specimen, which typically record the date, time and place where the plant or animal was collected, among other details.

“You can look at maps of the globe and you can see spots where we just don’t know anything about vertebrates, let alone insects or plants or mollusks,” said Robert Guralnick, associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and CU-Boulder’s point person on the Notes from Nature project. “We can fill in the gaps with these kinds of data that come from those drawers.”

The concept that underpins Notes from Nature grew out of a collaboration among the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of London, the South Eastern Regional Network of Expertise and Collections, or SERNEC, and University of California Berkeley’s Calbug project, an umbrella for the nine major insect collections housed in California.

The vision was crafted into a reality by data-visualization specialists from Vizzuality and by Zooniverse, a web portal that already hosts online citizen science projects that allow the average person to comb through cosmic data in search of far-off planets, transcribe old ship logs to glean historical climate records, or listen to audio clips of nighttime bat calls to help identify and track the flying mammals.

“Our projects help answer research questions that can only be solved by a significant amount of human attention — they require people, not computers,” said Arfon Smith, director of citizen science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the technical lead for Zooniverse. “People have responded in a way that is truly great. There is an appetite for contributing to something real.”

When Notes from Nature launched in late April, cyber citizen scientists had access to two collections for transcription: insects from Calbug and plants from SERNEC. In the future, the project plans to add the London museum’s bird ledgers and possibly other museum collections as they become available.

The University of Colorado Museum of Natural History’s zoology records have largely been entered into a database already.  However, major digitization efforts are currently underway in the museum’s botanical, entomological and paleontological collections, work that is being supported through a nationally funded initiative to increase access to museum records.

Almost immediately after the website went live, hundreds of people started transcribing thousands of records, contributing a person-year’s worth of work in just a handful of days. A month in, more than 2,100 people have completed more than 101,000 transcriptions.

Guralnick, who is the curator of invertebrate zoology at CU-Boulder’s museum, is working to determine the cost-benefit tradeoff of crowdsourcing the transcription of museum collections as well as checking the quality of the resulting data and monitoring the time it takes to do the transcriptions online.

Guralnick has yet to crunch numbers, but the overwhelming initial enthusiasm from citizen scientists is promising. “We think, even in the first week, we’ve paid it off,” he said. “That’s really cool.”

Read the full news release.

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