Discover Life

Enabling students and citizen scientists to
identify & study 2,000 species in Massachusetts

Discover Life
John Pickering & Peter Alden
The Polistes Foundation
May, 2006

Robinia pseudoacacia
Illustrated by Cheryl Reese

Robinia pseudoacacia Linnaeus
Black locust, a southern tree,
which is invading Massachusetts

Updated: 30 May, 2006


Google and other search engines will soon make the regurgitation of facts from human memory a skill of marginal use. Our educational system must adapt and respond quickly to this challenge. We must teach future workers how to compete successfully with machines for jobs. Our children need to learn how to create knowledge and understanding, not just recall facts.

Nature offers an outdoor classroom full of almost limitless unknowns. Let's use this valuable resource to teach people how to investigate the world, formulate new ideas, design studies, collect data, solve problems, and discover wisdom beyond the recall of computers.

The proposed project's immediate goal is to provide the means to teach citizens in Massachusetts the wonders of their local flora and fauna and to have them contribute to our scientific understanding of its mysteries. Our long-term goal is to develop a model system that other states can use to fascinate their citizens in nature, encourage them to study it, and in so doing learn to reason and think creatively.


The project falls under the general rubric of how to discover life and involve students and the public the process (see Here we focus on Massachusetts. Our specific 1-year objectives are to

  1. build local web identification guides to 1,000 plant and 1,000 animal species in Massachusetts;
  2. create species pages with diagnostic images, up-to-date distribution maps, and useful facts about these species for Discover Life's free online encyclopedia of life;
  3. customize web tools that will allow users to report and display their findings on maps and aerial photographs of the state;
  4. develop research protocols that teach students how to study biodiversity;
  5. promote use of the above throughout the state to help us all better understand, manage, and enjoy nature.


Because of Peter Alden, E. O. Wilson, and their colleagues, Massachusetts leads other states in getting large numbers of school children and citizen scientists to help survey a state's flora and fauna. Massachusetts Biodiversity Days started in June, 1998, with a survey centered on Walden Pond by 100 expert naturalists. It became a statewide program under the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. At its height, each June from 2000 to 2004, approximately 30,000 participants reported data on 2,800 species found during nature walks in up to 300 towns. These and other data provide a solid foundation to begin putting online the state's estimated 15,000 species larger than 1 millimeter. They will enable us to build customized identification guides by county, town, and protected area.

Discover Life started in 1998 as a means to collect and share information about nature over the web. With contributions from the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Institution, and other partners, Discover Life is rapidly assembling an encyclopedia of life that now has pages on over 250,000 species. The site includes IDnature Guides, a Global Mapper, and other tools for users to identify specimens and report their findings. Discover Life is under the legal umbrella of The Polistes Foundation, a 501-c-3 non-profit organization based in Massachusetts. In March, 2006, it served over 5.5 million images and pages to over 130,000 IP addresses.


There are circa 1,600 native and 1,400 introduced vascular plants in Massachusetts, including 100 invasive species. Peter Alden and our informal network of expert state naturalists will select 1,000 of these for which we will build web identification guides and species pages. Among our target species, we will include all trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, and invasives.

Similarly, we propose to build online guides and species pages to 1,000 animals, including all the vertebrates (approximately 100 mammals, 300, birds, 40 herps, and 60 fish) and selected arthropods (all ants, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies; some spiders, bees, beetles, and other groups).

Species pages
Peter Alden will write a web page for each of the 2,000 target species using his extensive library, slide collection, and other resources. His pages will include at least five fun facts that school children and the general public will find interesting about the biology, distribution, and importance of each species in Massachusetts.

In each page, we will include at least one high-quality diagnostic image. We will get these images from many sources: our personal slide collections, those of our colleagues, by soliciting them from organizations and individual photographers, by adding links to other web sites, and, as a last resort, by actually taking more photographs. In all cases, our web pages will give appropriate attribution to image sources, thus protecting each owner's copyright. If contributors wish, in exchange for use of their material, we will customize discrete links below their images to advertise their photographs, illustrations, and books commercially.

Local and seasonal identification guides
Discover Life's IDnature guide software allows us to build and quickly customize guides using local and seasonal checklists. Once we build statewide guides for the 2,000 species, it will be very easy for local naturalists to use checklists to build guides specific to towns, nature preserves, school yards, and other areas of interest. Students could easily build a web guide to their school's trees and shrubs, for example, as did Cedar Shoals High School in Georgia (see Once we have enough users reporting their sightings, the technology will allow us to serve dynamic guides. Rather than thumbing through large paper guides to wildflowers of eastern states, we envision a web community sharing guides to, say, the "Wildflowers in bloom this week on Beacon Hill." For the bird watchers, we could generate "Spring warblers that you might see at Mt. Auburn Cemetery this weekend." Or, for the gardeners, "Invasive vines of Concord that you should remove from your yard -- mind the Poison ivy, Gladys."

We will include a link on each species page to our Global Mapper. Thus, users will be able to see their findings and those of others at scales ranging from global satellite images to local aerial photographs of their neighborhoods. The Global Mapper is a joint venture between Discover Life and, a Massachusetts internet company founded and run by Ed McNierney. Clearly, we will address data quality issues in presenting such distribution maps, allowing users to choose from all points available to limited sets that we filter by the reliability of their sources.

Research protocols
Over the next year, Discover Life and some of its partners intend to develop research protocols to help students and other citizens become involved in biodiversity studies and learn from their experience (see In March, we spoke with Joan FitzGerald and Marie Studer about involving EarthWatch in this process. We hope that EarthWatch will be able to provide summer internships to four teachers who will work toward this objective. We envision that these teachers will learn Discover Life's tools in a 5-day workshop at the University of Georgia in July, then work in a national park or other conservation area with associated scientists and staff for two weeks, and finally return to their communities to develop protocols and lesson plans specific to their local biodiversity.

As part of this proposal, Peter Alden and Discover Life's staff will work with teachers and volunteers to develop protocols and test them with school children and citizen volunteers.

Promote use
We cannot expect governmental funding for all the biodiversity research we need, because of the enormity of the task at hand. Instead citizens and non-government organizations must join together to gather fine-grained data over large geographic regions. Discover Life's technology and the work proposed here will enable school children and citizen scientists to identify species and report their observations. If we successfully promote the use of the proposed system, citizens will be able to monitor changes in the abundance, distribution, and seasonality of species throughout Massachusetts. We plan to seek the help of potential partner organizations in Massachusetts, such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, New England Wildflower Society, and Nuttall Ornithological Club. Together we intend to build an army of citizen naturalists who will share the joy of nature with future generations and teach them how to help in its stewardship.

This is a marriage between old-fashioned expertise in natural history and state-of-the-art technology. We propose to empower Peter Alden, a naturalist par excellence, but hopeless computer Luddite, with Discover Life's proven web capabilities. Thus, Peter will be able to share his knowledge and love of nature with all of Massachusetts and, for that matter, at no extra cost to anyone, with the rest of the world.


$50,000-- Salary for Peter Alden (10 months @ $5,000/month)
$20,000-- Technical support from Discover Life in Massachusetts ($7.00-$20.00/hour)
$25,000-- Technical support from Discover Life in Georgia ($7.00-$20.00/hour)
$5,000-- Indirect costs for fiduciary services from The Polistes Foundation
$100,000-- TOTAL

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