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Massachusetts Natural History Survey

Welcome to the Massachusetts Natural History Survey, a consortium to generate an online resource for the consolidation of biological occurrence information statewide and, we hope, serve as a model to a geographically wider audience. Our over-arching purpose is to accumulate, verify, consolidate, analyze and, when appriopriate, disseminate biological occurrence information for purposes of scientific research and and conservation. Simultaneously, the Survey functions as an educational mechanism by providing interactive learning tools such as identification guides, encouraging communication among participants, and enabling user-generated feedback. Our immediate goal is to provide the enhanced infrastructure necessary to accumulate, verify, and analyze biological, taxonomic and ecological data.
Photograph by Barbara Spencer
Feralia comstocki (Grote, 1874)
Comstock's Sallow

Understanding large patterns and changes in the living world requires enormous quantities of biological data gathered over time. The impacts of climate change, the loss of ecological and genomic diversity, and the eroding composition of our insect and pollinator faunas are examples of questions for which biological data traditionally accumulated in natural history museums are uniquely suited. However, in order to realize their potential, historical information housed in natural history museums must be complemented by ongoing real-time observation at a scale not possible without the combined effort of an enormous number of people. This endeavor arises from the need to develop a comprehensive, current, and interactive regional picture of the biological landscape. It draws on a growing reservoir of biologists, naturalists, citizen scientists and conservation professionals and rests on an existing online bioinformatic infrastructure to generate basic occurrence data in the form of archivable, georeferenced high-resolution images and combine them with specimen-based data from biological collections at museums and universities. The data are synthesized in a transparent, quality-controlled format that dovetails with existing online resources. Our framework is more than a virtual museum: It is an organic, interactive medium for translating first-hand observations by any member of the public into formal, permanent, retrievable, and correctable documentation.

Photograph by Les Mehrhoff
Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.
Oriental Bittersweet, an invasive vine

Broadly, the Survey's goals are to:

  • Teach natural history and foster inquiry-based scientific learning
  • Combine data generated by citizen-scientists with existing image- and collection-based records to create a detailed, information-rich picture of the biological landscape of Massachusetts.
  • Complement existing frameworks for evaluating landscape-, species-, and population-level biological change over time
  • Address questions surrounding the impacts of climate change, invasive plants and animals, pollution, pests, diseases and habitat loss on native species and their interactions
  • Maintain an image-based clearinghouse of regional biological data to complement existing repositories of biological occurrence information for both rare and common species
  • Provide up-to-date, readily usable information to farmers, gardeners, and natural resource managers, that will enhance their ability to anticipate and respond effectively to invasive organisms, pest and disease outbreaks, and climatic events

Building on the existence electronic infrasctructure at Discover Life (www.discoverlife.org) and other consortium members' technology, databases, and outreach experience, the Survey's immediate and ongoing charge includes:

  • Recruiting participants from all walks of life to inventory and monitor biological diversity in a streamlined, systematic fashion that rewards efforts of all sizes
  • Building online local identification guides that enable non-experts to identify species and report their occurrences
  • Providing accessible training, technical support, and quality control so all participants can generate and use large quantities of accurate data
  • Making data web-ready and available within 24 hours of submission, excluding sensitive information such as locations of vulnerable or threatened species
  • Encouraging participants to ask questions of their own data and that of others, so that they can learn valuable analytical skills and have access to tools for graphing, mapping, and modeling

The vast quantities of data that we need to collect require public participation. However, there are two impediments to engaging the public: a lack of readily available resources to develop identification skills and scientific credibility -- ultimately, quality control of the information generated. Did the observer correctly record exactly where and when they made an observation? Did they identify it correctly? Observations without evidence are dubious.

The Survey overcomes these impediments with Discover Life's unique scientific approach to online image documentation. Participants take digital photographs and follow rigorous protocols that accurately record time and location. The subsequent methods integrate the submission and tagging of photographs, species identification, mapping, and oversight by computers and human experts who correct errors and ensure high data quality. These methods expedite data collection and eliminate much of the need to kill and process specimens of many groups of organisms. To the extent plants and animals can be reliably identified via photograph, it becomes possible for everyone to contribute to documenting changes in the distribution, phenology, abundance and interactions of species.

Massachusetts has a rich flora and fauna, and an equally varied pool of users, participants, and questions. The Commonwealth's biota seems outsized given the state's area: Though a mere 10,555 square miles (smaller than Hawaii) Massachusetts is home to some of the highest concentrations of biological diversity in northeastern North America. The survey focuses on species that can be identified from photographs, a range of vertebrates, plants, fungi and invertebrates, but is already in the process of incorporating specimen data from smaller forms of life identifiable only by microscope or molecular techniques. As such it will teach science both in and out of the classroom through hands-on research. For an example of a standards-aligned project for high school biology or environmental science classes, as well as ones at the undergraduate and graduate level, see Mothing. The survey will also support activities in 4-H, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other clubs. It will provide a rapid means for gardeners, farmers and land managers to share information. Finally, it will enable individual naturalists to store and manage photographic data, map occurrences, identify species, and collect a digital Life List of species. In short, there is something for everyone, and we hope you will participate.

We invite organizations, agencies and individuals to be founding consortium members and together launch the Massachusetts Natural History Survey in May 2012. If you would like more information or would like to join us, please contact one or more of the following individuals:

  • Sarah Oktay, Nantucket Field Station -- sarah.oktay@umb.edu -- 508-228-5268
  • Peter Burn, Suffolk University -- pburn@suffolk.edu -- 617-573-8347
  • Paul Goldstein, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland/National Museum of Natural History -- drpzgoldstein@gmail.com -- 202-633-4584
  • Nancy Lowe, Outreach Coordinator, Discover Life -- nancy@discoverlife.org -- 404-272-4526
  • John Pickering, University of Georgia -- pick@discoverlife.org -- 706-542-1115

Organizational meeting, 22 May, 2012


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Updated: 16 May, 2012
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