Identifying Species

Collecting data on any group of organisms requires, of course, accurate identification, ideally to species or even subspecies. Traditional field guides and web-based identification guides are becoming sophisticated and accessible, but most of us tend to develop expertise in a specific group of organisms. Sharing this expertise is a great way to engage the public in more data collection.

Arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans, millipedes, and centipedes) make up more than three-quarters of the species on Earth. However,

320 / Peter J. Bryant the general public is not generally well informed about arthropods, and there are many misunderstandings and irrational fears regarding these animals. But as with most other animals and plants, to know them is to love them. A close look at a fly, a bug, or a roach can completely change one's feelings from aversion to fascination. With spiders, for some reason, aversions often run strong, but again a close look at the animal can often overcome these feelings.

A major factor in increased awareness and interest in arthropods has been the ready availability of digital cameras and especially the huge increase in opportunity for image sharing made possible by digital photography and Internet access. Web sites have facilitated image and knowledge sharing, and greatly stimulated efforts by amateur photographers to contribute to knowledge about biodiversity. Increased efforts to compile data on species distribution and migration are also adding to the popularity and utility of the combination of digital photography and web-based communication. New web-based interactive geo-informatics programs, such as Google Earth, provide exciting opportunities for cooperative data collection by scientists, and they also make it possible to involve the public in biodiversity data collection. This has the dual benefit of stimulating the public to understand the environment, and of producing important data that would be impossible to obtain by a typical scientific research group operating in isolation.

One of the more creative and successful uses of the Internet for engaging the public is the Bugguide web site, hosted by the Entomology Department at Iowa State University (Bartlett, 2007). In early 1999, Troy Bartlett of Roswell, GA, began sharing his insect photographs on the Internet. Noticing an unmet need, he decided to create an online community where both amateur and professional entomologists could not only view images, but also contribute their own images in order to get help with identification. The images are used to create guide pages that can subsequently be used to help others to learn and identify insects, spiders, and other related creatures in North America. Volunteer section editors contribute their expertise to review identifications and to move guide pages into the proper taxonomic positions. In many cases the photographs are good enough for identification to species, but there are still situations calling for microscopic examination of a specimen and even dissection of the genitalia by an expert. Images of such problematic creatures are still posted, but with more tentative identifications. Troy's Bugguide web site became such a success that Iowa State University was brought in to manage it. As of December 2007 it had 15,762 contributors, 75 editors, and 124,113 images on 8,624 species pages grouped into 667 families. It has also become much more than an identification guide, since it helps enthusiasts to compile and share information on life histories and geographic distribution of species.

It has the potential to make increasingly important contributions to our knowledge of biodiversity, to increase the sharing of this knowledge, and eventually to track long-term changes in biodiversity. The project could also be expanded to other taxa.

An alternative approach to engaging and educating the public about local biodiversity is to compile web sites showing only the species likely to be seen locally. By cutting down on the number of choices, this makes it much easier for amateurs to learn identification. With some other local photographers, Ron Hemberger, Hartmut Wisch, and I have compiled a web site on local (Orange County) arthropods that contains over 760 species pages and is one of the most complete displays of local arthropods to be found anywhere (Bryant, 2007a). I have also compiled a web site on the local intertidal animals, based on my own photographs and containing over 90 species pages (Bryant, 2007a). These projects have taught me and the other photographers a great deal about local biodiversity, and the web sites are used as field guides for untold numbers of the public who are curious or even worried about some of the creatures they encounter.

Orange County Birding (http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/~jmorlan/ora.htm) provides a forum for reporting and discussing bird sightings in Orange County. Over 450 bird species have been recorded in the county. A special forum for reporting vagrants is the Orange County Rare Bird Alert (http: / / www.virtualbirder.com/vbirder/realbirds/rbas/CA.html#CAOC); 24 rare species were recorded during one of the most recent weeks.

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