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Macrosystems Research

Please join us in creating a network of study sites to understand the impact of climate change and other factors on species interactions, geographic distributions, and seasonal abundances.

Costaconvexa centrostrigaria, Bent-line Carpet
Costaconvexa centrostrigaria (Wollaston, 1858)
Bent-line Carpet


Our protocols include a two-hour nature walk in the afternoon followed by two hours of moth monitoring at night. Participants will collect digital photographs of species then spend a few minutes uploading photographs.


Understanding the potential impacts of climate change, pollution, invasive species, and other large-scale factors on biological systems is a formidable task. It is not feasible to conduct randomized, replicated experiments at regional and continental scales. Instead we can use natural field experiments to study such phenomena (Hargrove and Pickering 1992). We are building a continental network of naturalists to collect large quantities of data for natural experiments.

Discover Life has developed protocols that enable all our participants to collect high quality data using digital photography, global positioning devices, cell phones, and web tools. For species identification, we use customized local online guides, automated flagging of unusual events, and oversight by taxonomists. We provide technical support, photographic albums to store images and edit associated information, mapping and analysis tools, and sharing of data via the web.


For the Nature Walk protocol, choose a trail, ideally one that goes through a diversity of habitats and has abundant native species. For the Mothing protocol, choose a location that is far from other light sources, ideally close to some wild habitats.


  • Digital camera - a point-and-shoot can be fine, but you want one with an optical zoom of 10x or more
    - see some suggestions here.
  • GPS if possible. If not, get your latitude and longitude from a map.
  • Cell phone
  • Computer with internet access
  • Metric ruler
  • Optional - Blacklight setup for Mothing if porch light unavailable: blacklight, power source, extension cord, white sheet, rope and clothespins.


  1. General -- 5-minute how-to video on using photographs to document nature.

  2. Uploading photographs -- setting up and editing your album and life list of species.

  3. Nature Walk
    Purpose - to collect data on phenology, distribution and relative abundance, invasive species, and species' response (particularly lichens) to air quality. Take your digital camera, GPS, cell phone, and ruler to your chosen trail. At the trail head, take photographs of the following:
    • Cell phone (this tells us the exact date and time)
    • GPS (this tells us the exact location)
    • The habitat, facing North, East, South and West.
    • The sky, showing the weather
    • The people you are with
    Then for two hours or more, take photographs of natural history, especially the following:
    • Plants
      Primarily wildflowers and other flowers in bloom; trees in various stages of leafing out
      Take a series of photographs:
      • Whole plant
      • Stem, showing leaf arrangement (opposite/ alternate/ whorled)
      • For woody plants, include a photograph of bark
      • Flower, including close up of reproductive parts inside, first without, then with, metric ruler
      • Fruit first without, then with, metric ruler
      • Whole leaf, upper side first without, then with, metric ruler
      • Leaf underside close up at petiole
      • Any distinguishing features such as spines, warty bark, red pigments in new leaves, etc.
      Cercis canadensis, Eastern Redbud, leaf base under
      Cercis canadensis L.
      Eastern Redbud, leaf underside at petiole
    • Pollinators and other insects on plants -- as described in video above.
    • Lichens
      • Without ruler - overall structure, whole thallus (body)
      • With ruler - whole thallus at widest dimension
      • Close up of any structures such as apothecia or cilia
      • Close up of underside if applicable
    • Fleshy fungi
      • Whole mushroom without ruler
      • Whole mushroom with ruler showing height then showing width
      • If on stipe (stalk), dig carefully to show base of stipe and any veil remnants
      • Underside, showing arrangement gills or pores
      • If stalk present, break stalk to show texture, latex, hollow vs solid, etc.
    • Salamanders, frogs, snakes, lizards, other herps
    • Any other natural history that interests you

  4. Mothing
    Purpose: To collect data on phenology, community chronology, distribution, and relative abundance of moths.
    • Turn on your porch light or blacklight BEFORE dusk.
    • Photograph your cell phone for exact date and time
    • Photograph your GPS for exact location
    • Photograph each light and a wide shot of the entire location (porch, blacklight setup in woods, etc.)
    • Photograph every individual moth that comes in for at least two hours.
      • Photograph each moth first without the ruler, then with the ruler.
      • Ideally, the moth should be facing with its head at the top of the frame, and the ruler along the bottom edge.
      • If the moth is highly three-dimensional, such as a tent shape or with abdomen pointing upward, photograph from the side as well.
      • If there are multiple individuals of the same species, photograph at least 20 individuals so that we can get a series.
      • Photograph any other species that come to the light, such as wasps, beetles, flies, even frogs.

    Joe Carley
    Joe Carley documenting moths
    • If you would like, photograph an hour before dawn as well, or have a friend do this.
    • Make sure to turn off the light well before dawn, so that moths fly away and aren't eaten by birds.


We recommend repeating these protocols at least four weekends in spring so that we can compare spring phenology across sites. We will compare the data collected from all sites with our own data collected every night of the year in Georgia.

Select four consecutive weekends that are convenient, based on your college's academic calendar, and that span from early to mid spring, based on your latitude. Ideally, the four weeks should include early spring wildflowers at the beginning, and should end before the peak of warbler migration. For example, a North Carolina Appalachian group might choose mid-March to mid-April, but a group in Wisconsin might choose the month of May.

Sign Up

Tell us your chosen weekends and locations, and send us names and emails of participants a week in advance so that we can set them up with an album. To sign up or for more information, contact our Outreach Coordinator, Nancy Lowe.

For more details and rationale -- see proposal.

K-12 Teacher Training in Georgia

Teachers in Georgia are invited to join us for a Teacher Quality Improvement Workshop to learn more about using Discover Life in the classroom. This workshop will be at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, July 12-21, 2011. For more information click here or download pdf flier.

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Updated -- 1 March, 2016
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