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The Goldenrod Challenge

The challenge is simple -- can you, or your team, photograph more species associated with goldenrods than your competitors? All ages and all levels of experience are welcome to join in the fun each fall during goldenrod season.

Xylocopa virginica
Photograph by Sammy Pickering, 2006
Xylocopa virginica on Solidago
Eastern carpenter bee on goldenrod

Updated: 3 April, 2011

Discover Life | Overview | Research protocol & rules | Teams | Albums | Identification guides | Maps | Scores | Top

Insect Pollination of Goldenrod
© Nancy Lee Adamson, Virginia Tech
Music with permission by Roland Dyens
mov format


The Goldenrod Challenge is a fall program that is a part of Discover Life's Macrosystems Research to understand the impact of climate change and other factors on species interactions, geographic distributions, and seasonal abundances. Please participate and help scientists study the impact of climate change, invasive species, and other factors on the distribution, abundance, and interactions of pollinators, plants, and other organisms across the continent.


    We plan to study goldenrod sites across North America each fall. Our organizers at the American Museum of Natural History (John Ascher), National Biological Information Infrastructure (Annie Simpson), Lost Ladybug Project (John Losey), and Discover Life (John Pickering) invite you to join us.

Technical support

  • The Goldenrod Challenge is a fun entry point into learning about nature through photography. Our larger educational goal is to provide the means for you to discover what is known (and unknown) about all the living things that you find exploring schoolyards, neighborhoods, parks, and other outdoor areas. Participants will start personal electronic 'life lists' -- albums of digital photographs to document and map when and where they see species. These life lists will help you learn about nature and share your experiences.
  • Our scientific goal is to understand the impact of weather and other environmental changes on the distribution, abundance and interactions of species at continental scales. By combining data from participants' personal life lists and filtering them to include only high-quality observations, we will be able to better understand, and ultimately manage, thousands of species around the planet.

World's smallest vultures

Can you find the six species in this image? What are they doing? Can you describe their ecological relationships with each other?
Click on the image, scroll to the bottom, set the resolution, then click on each image to advance to the next.

Why goldenrods?

Goldenrods are plants in the genus Solidago. Their native range is centered in North America and Western Europe (see map). There are about 140 species worldwide, half of which occur in North America. While goldenrods are beautiful, some are invasive weeds. They plague parts of Italy, for example.

In much of North America, particularly east of the Rocky Mountains, goldenrods often grow in dense patches of showy yellow flowers. Flowering starts around August in northern states and ends around November in southern states. Goldenrod patches attract large numbers of insects, spiders, and other arthropods that are active in the fall. From our perspective, goldenrod patches serve as fantastic natural "traps" for us to photograph and compare these species-rich communities over time and space.

click on map for distributional details

Embracing technology

Digital technology has captured the hearts and minds (and hands) of the younger generation. Instead of exploring the woods and playing outside like their grandparents did, many children now occupy their spare time inside with video games and computers. Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" is a call for action. How do we get people back outside and to the healthy benefits of interacting with nature?

The Goldenrod Challenge hopes to engage participants by combining the natural world, cool technology, team work, and a spirit of competition. Let's embrace the technology that motivates millions of people to share photographs through social networking sites, compete in on-line games, and solve the challenges of Lara Croft's addictive virtual world. But let's make it even more challenging and exciting. Let's combine the wonders of our real and virtual worlds.

Some reasons to get outside with a camera and participate:

  • nature's complexity never gets boring and exceeds even the most sophisticated computer games;
  • hunting for species appeals to parts deep in our hunter-gatherer brains;
  • successfully photographing a moving insect on a flower on a windy day requires more skillful hand-eye coordination (and patience) than using a joy-stick to kick-box an opponent or race around a virtual track;
  • identifying unknown species is a task that requires more interactive skills than Google possesses -- it requires team work;
  • building a winning 'life list' could keep you engaged for years, providing enjoyment from childhood to old-age;
  • the information you collect and share will be more beneficial to science, society, and the environment than all your "friends" and their photographs on your social networking site.

Discover Life | Overview | Research protocol | Teams | Albums | Identification guides | Maps | Scores | Top

How to participate (more details to be added soon; including a how-to video by Dick Walton)

  1. Find a partner -- For enjoyment and safety reasons, we want you to work together. So ask a friend or family member to join a team with you or form a new team together (see existing teams).
  2. Get a digital camera -- Get access to a digital camera that passes the "dime test" and can take close-up photographs of insects.
  3. Photograph goldenrods -- Take photographs of the species associated with any flowering goldenrod in your county. [Team captains can post local "Goldenrod events" on Discover Life by contacting Joe Carley (dl@discoverlife.org or 706-542-6676). They will be posted here.]
  4. Get a photo album and install software -- Ask for a personal photo album on Discover Life for each team member from Joe and then install secure upload software on your Mac or PC.
  5. Upload images -- Upload your photographs to your album (see existing albums), documenting when and where you took each. (You'll need a photo album and password from Joe as explained in the previous step.)
  6. Identify species -- Identify the species in your photographs with the help of our on-line identification guides, other participants, and taxonomic experts. (See identification guide, as a starting point.)
  7. Choose personal best -- Select your "best" photograph for each species and put them into an on-line personal slideshow. Mimicry & camouflage and fall insects are example slide shows. Click on each image to go to the next.
  8. Choose team best -- Team captains select the "best" photograph for each species into an on-line team slideshow.
  9. Choose county best -- If multiple teams compete within a county, they should join forces and select the "best" photograph for each species into an on-line, county-wide slideshow.
  10. Judging -- We will score slide shows for the number of different species each contain, judging them at individual, team, and county levels.
  11. Life List -- Whether you win or lose, celebrate life. You now have a personal life list.
  12. Keep going -- Add more species to it for the rest of your life.

Research protocol

What photographs should you submit?

Winners will photograph and document more insects, spiders, and other target species in goldenrod patches during the flowering season than their competitors. Besides the invertebrates you photograph on plants in goldenrod patches, what other species should you photograph?

First and foremost, as part of Discover Life's broader mission, we encourage you to get outside and take photographs of nature -- any species, any time, any place! Even if a species isn't associated with a goldenrod patch, you may include its photograph in your album and add it to your life list.

The Goldenrod Challenge addresses how weather and geography affect the diversity and abundance of species, the specificity of plant-insect and predator-prey interactions, the phenology and synchrony of populations, and the impact of non-native species on native ones. We aim to get the best data possible by focusing on specific target groups of organisms.

Take the highest-resolution jpg images that your camera allows. Submit originals. Do not crop or otherwise manipulate your images.

For species that cannot be identified reliably from photographs, except for vertebrates, we will give credit to participants who identify them to species group, genus, tribe, family, ..., whatever is practical. However, we will only count one such partially identified species per higher taxon.

Winners must take all their own photographs and submit the originals jpgs as taken by their camera. You may not share or trade photographs, but you may help teammates to find different species in the field. Contributors retain the copyright to their images but agree to allow Discover Life to use them. Unless a contributing photographer request otherwise, Discover Life will display the photographer's name below each image with a link to our copyright policy & terms of use page.

Camera settings

  • Make sure to set your camera's date and time accurately. Be sure to set AM and PM correctly.
  • Take the highest quality jpg (jpeg) images that your camera can take. Do not submit images in your camera's "raw" format.

    Advanced protocol

    For those of you who are willing to do a little more work, the followings steps will allow us to collect better scientific data on location, time, habitat, weather conditions, and sampling effort. Most importantly, by synchronizing the exact time when you photograph species with your teammates' photographs, we can estimate the relative density of different species.

    At the start of each photographic session in a goldenrod patch, first photograph:

    1. The time and date on your cell phone, if you have one.
    2. The latitude and longitude (and time) on your GPS unit, if you have one.
    3. The people participating with you.
    4. The horizon in all four directions, starting from North, to East, to South and lastly West.
    5. The goldenrod patch.
    6. The sky above you, but not into the sun!
    7. And go. Photograph as many species as you can each day in each patch. Give up when you want to go either home or to another patch. Depending on species diversity, we recommend spending about an hour per patch. Be nimble and fast. Your subjects can fly away. Take multiple photographs of the same species until you get a good one. You can delete the blurry ones later! You are allowed to hold the goldenrod to stop it from blowing so much in the wind, but you are not allowed to move creatures around to get them on a goldenrod. Don't cheat -- our big brother in the sky may be photographing you!

    If you follow the advanced protocol, we will enable you to login to Discover Life and upload a directory of images together rather than doing so one at a time via the web.


    Discover Life is run by the Polistes Foundation. Its current support includes a Cooperative Agreement with the US Geological Survey's National Biological Information Infrastructure and a National Science Foundation grant to John Losey at Cornall University to support the Lost Ladybug Project.

Updated: 13 December, 2011 Discover Life | Top © Designed by The Polistes Corporation