|Final Report to NBII, May, 2009|
Euonymus alatus berries
Burning bush -- an invasive species of New England
Illustration by Cheryl Reese, 2004
Invasive species threaten our health, food supply, economy, environment, and general well-being. In 2004, following two years of initial support, the USGS-NBII and Polistes Foundation entered a 5-year cooperative agreement to develop, test, and implement the human and technical infrastructure needed to vastly improve our ability to quarantine, detect, monitor, and responsed to invasive species. The following sections describe our technology, partnership, and progress through April, 2009. They include an outline of what we plan to work toward in a pending second 5-year cooperative agreement.
The website Discover Life (http://www.discoverlife.org) is under the legal umbrella of the Polistes Foundation, a 501-c-3 non-profit organization. Its broader mission is to assemble and share knowledge about nature in order to improve education, health, agriculture, economic development, and conservation throughout the world.
We have developed online tools to study natural history and track the biological impact of invasive species, climate change, acid rain, pollinator declines, and other large-scale ecological factors. Using these tools it is exciting and easy to participate in research to collect and share high-quality data. We invite both individuals and organizations to join us in building a network of study sites across North America.
Digital cameras, video recorders, wireless handheld devices, GPS units, on-line databases, and web tools are revolutionizing the way we collect data. Because of our partnership with NBII, Discover Life is in the forefront of developing research protocols and on-line tools for distributed networks of participants to collect, manage, map, and analyze information on the distribution, abundance, and phenology of species. Our technology enables large numbers of scientists, resource managers, students, and volunteers to work together to collect and integrate high-quality, up-to-date data at local to global scales. Once the network of study sites that we envision is fully implemented, such data will enable us to much better understand and manage natural resources.
Discover Life's research goals go hand-in-hand with a strong educational program to involve schools, other organizations, and individuals in participatory science. Our outreach program's focus is to teach people about science and the natural world by involving them in all aspects of research, from what questions to ask, to study design, to the collection and analysis of the highest-quality data possible.
Discover Life's web tools are designed for the general benefit of all levels of expertise. Teachers can design hands-on ecological research projects for the schoolyard or local park without killing specimens. Park managers can track migrations of invasive species. Scientists can map large collections of specimens and present information about taxa. Amateur naturalists can upload images and make a life list of species they find. Environmental educators can build online field guides so simple they can be used even by the youngest beginner.
Everyone can benefit in some way from a partnership with Discover Life. With our powerful integrated web tools, one can:
Discover Life provides tools to monitor large amounts of natural history data, over large areas, over any period of time. It uses server-side technology to gather and share information over the web. Its software is licensed from the Polistes Corporation at no cost and provides the power behind the IDnature guides, Global Mapper, Albums, and other databasing tools. These are shared at no cost to data providers and end users via the web.
A key feature of this technology is the integration across tools. For example, we enable individuals to upload digital photographs to their albums, document when and where each image was taken, and manage other associated data. Our IDnature guides, drop-down checklists, and type-ahead features permit contributors and experts to add taxonomic names to the photographic records. Once identified and graded for quality, photographs automatically display on species pages and in distribution maps.
Discover Life's web services can be called by other websites through HTTP requests. Other sites can use such links free of charge without seeking prior approval. For details of how to use the tools on one's site, please see our extensive 'Help' -- http://www.discoverlife.org/help -- particularly the section on 'Web services'.
Although much of Discover Life's tools and content are not public domain, the cooperative agreement between NBII and the Polistes Foundation specifies that if Polistes can no longer serve as the legal umbrella of Discover Life, then the site will be legally transferred to a government agency or another non-profit organization. This assures that websites, organizations, and other end users of Discover Life's tools and content can rely on their availability and stability into the foreseeable future.
Content providers to Discover Life contribute information under the understanding that they
retain full copyright with all rights reserved, if they so wish. Discover Life does not distribute
entire databases to end users without the permission of the provider. Individuals wishing to use
entire datasets should contact the data provider directly, or in the case of datasets that we forward to GBIF,
copyright statement under each image, many of which use our default:
Over 60 individual members of Discover Life's International Center for Public Health and Environmental Research (PHER, see http://www.discoverlife.org/research) and 100 organizations, such as the American Museum of Natural History, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and ASEANET, have generously provided content and expertise to support the site. For a full list of partner organizations please see http://www.discoverlife.org/pa/or/polistes/partners.html. We are most grateful to these individuals and organizations and thank them profusely for their contributions.
Since 2002, the U. S. Geological Survey's National Biological Information Structure (NBII) has been the major financial supporter of The Polistes Foundation and its partners to integrate natural history data and build web-based identification guides to North America's flora and fauna. As described in our proposals (see http://www.discoverlife.org/pa/or/polistes/pr), this partnership started by developing guides to common North American butterflies, caterpillars, wildflowers, and invasive species. In May, 2004, the NBII and Polistes Foundation signed a 5-year cooperative agreement to use web tools to identify, report, and map invasive species in North America. In 2009, we will enter into a second 5-year agreement to continue this work.
By any metric, our first 5-year cooperative agreement has been very successful. Discover Life is most grateful and thanks NBII for their support. It has enabled us to grow and serve the web community in many ways.
Discover Life's servers at the University of Georgia and Missouri Botanical Garden have served over 424 million pages and images since inception. During the course of the cooperative agreement, usage increased considerably. The following table presents monthly usage in each April from 2004 - 2009 and the cumulative number of hits. 'Monthly users' represents the number of unique IP addresses accessing the servers.
Because of advances in technology that allow us to incorporate information from contributors, our databases are growing rapidly in both size and number. In April, 2005, when we added a new search box to Discover Life, we had information on 97,000 species. Six months later, our databases had information on nearly 224,000 species. We currently have valid names of over 1.2 million species.
Highlights in database growth include a partnership with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) to index and map 75+ million records. In addition, we index over 100 map and 200 image databases each night into our Global Mapper, search box, and taxon pages. These databases range in size from over 3 million records from Missouri Botanical Garden's Tropicos database to a few hundred snake records provided by Andrew Durso, an undergraduate at the University of Georgia.
While our import tools support standards such as Darwin Core, they do not require providers to follow any particular format. We are extremely flexible and use a large number of translators to reformat non-standard data so that they can be imported and integrated with data from multiple sources.
In 2008, Discover Life started to support videos with the help of Dick Walton's
Natural History Services. In 2009, we produced over 20 student videos (see
Later this year, we plan to add support for contributors to upload and manage audio files on Discover Life.
We build checklists and turn them into guides through the following steps detailed in our 2005 proposal ( http:www.discoverlife.org/pa/or/polistes/pr/2005nbii.html#Steps ):
We are first targeting the groups listed in the first column of the table at the end of this document. For each group our goal is to build a checklist and guide for all North American species. Clicking on the blue links in this column takes you to either a checklist or guide, depending on how far we have progressed with the group. Please see our 2005 proposal, for a detailed explanation of each column ( http://www.discoverlife.org/pa/or/polistes/pr/2005nbii.html#Columns ). As work continues, we will update the numbers in this table. Please see individual guides and checklists to get the most up-to-date figures on our progress.
Future plans -- science education and a network of study sites
Understanding and managing the impact of invasive species, weather, fire, pollution, and other environmental changes on biological systems is a mammoth task. It is impossible to conduct randomized, replicated experiments to study the impact of droughts, heat waves, and other massive perturbations on the abundance and distribution of populations between and within ecological communities. Fortunately, because of continuing advances in technology and statistics, it is becoming evermore feasible to collect and integrate information from a large number of study sites, tease out the response of populations to natural events, and gain understanding into their environmental requirements and interactions.
We have started developing and supporting outreach projects with research protocols that use digital camera and other means to collect high-quality data on the distribution, abundance, phenology, and species interactions of organisms. These project's include Bee Hunt, http://www.discoverlife.org/bee , and the Lost Ladybug Project, http://www.discoverlife.org/ladybug , the latter funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation through Cornell University. Our dream is to develop these and similar educational projects into a large network of study sites.
Discover Life's research center (PHER) and its partners are establishing teams of scientists, students, and volunteers to study the impact of invasive species, weather, and other factors on a diverse array of species. These teams will use on-line databases and a set of standard research protocols to gather and share information from a potential vast array of study sites around the globe. We propose to start a large-scale, long-term scientific study in North America.
Our big-picture dream regarding invasive species is to provide everyone with the technology they need to identify, report, and help monitor the distribution and movement of species worldwide. Our first objective is to build identification guides to the flora and fauna of North America so that the general public can help find and accurately identify target species. Our second objective is to assemble, manage, and distribute data and web tools that will help scientists, land managers, and students and other participants to rapidly detect and respond to invasive species.
We are integrating technology to overcome the two major hurdles that greatly impeded participants from contributing to the study and management of biological diversity. Many schools and volunteer organizations could help detect and manage invasive species, for example, simply by studying nature in their local communities and reporting what they find. However, most cannot contribute valuable data. They lack the ability to identify target species reliably and cannot easily share their findings with others in a timely manner. We need identification guides that can be successfully used by non-experts. We also need database tools that empower everyone to contribute information and view maps that filter data by source and reliability.
We envision that videos and cell phones will play key roles in building our society's capacity to monitor and manage invasive species. In this regard, Discover Life has started to use videos to educate people about the importance of invasive species and how to study them. We also plan to move our content and tools to smart phones via http://m.discoverlife.org . Ultimately, we hope to provide cell phone users with the ability to identify species, upload images and videos with accurate information of when and where they observed them from built-in GPS units, and download up-to-date maps and other timely information for management purposes.
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