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From Snapshot to Science: Photos of Biodiversity as Useful Records

When was the last time you took a photo of an interesting insect or flower? Did you do anything with that photo?

Sharing your photos can be about more than photography — it’s about what those photos represent. For many kinds of organisms, photos with clear documentation about where and when they were taken are useful scientific records of an organism in a place at a specific time. In some ways, these records are like virtual museum specimens. And like a museum specimen, the location and date is important to its scientific utility.

The Great Nature Project logoNational Geographic’s Great Nature Project is a way for people to use their photos as data by including information about what was seen, where, and when. The Great Nature Project is powered by iNaturalist.org, which is a social network of nature enthusiasts all over the world who interact with a database of biodiversity observations to add comments and suggest identifications.

Anyone can download data collected by iNaturalist users. Observations of wild organisms (i.e. not captive or cultivated) that receive the same identification from more than one user are considered “research grade”. These observations are shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and are available for download along with thousands of other datasets in peer-reviewed publications.

There are many possible ways that this kind of data can be used, but range extensions are among the simplest and easiest examples to understand. Scientists have maps for many species that show the boundaries of their known range, but between moving people and a changing climate, those boundaries shift. Focused inventories such as bioblitzes (like the one in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park) as well as casual observations made by ordinary people can be records that result in changes to species range maps. This is especially important for invasive species.

For example, there are at least 18 species of geckos that have been introduced to the southern United States. One in particular, the Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) has been expanding its U.S. range since introduction in Florida since 1910. One hundred years later, the species was first spotted in southern California by a ten-­year-­old who sent a photo to a herpetologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who later went out to see for himself.

These kinds of records — photos submitted by regular people — used to be sent to museum curators, if they made it that far. Now citizen science projects make it easier than ever for anyone to share their interesting observations of biodiversity.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles started a project called GeckoWatch within iNaturalist to record other observations of invasive geckos from across the U.S. Each individual record has the potential to represent a range extension for a given species, and collectively the records — ­combined with other spatial data such as land use, elevation, and climate — can be used to develop models predicting the extent of the invasion or potential to displace native species.

 

The native range of the Mediterranean House Gecko is shown in pink. Blue boxes represent observations submitted to iNaturalist.org, which show the widespread introduction across the southern United States. Map source: iNaturalist.org using Google Maps. Range source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4.
The native range of the Mediterranean House Gecko is shown in pink. Blue boxes represent observations submitted to iNaturalist.org, which show the widespread introduction across the southern United States. Map source: iNaturalist.org using Google Maps. Range source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4.

 

One example of citizen-­science generated biodiversity records used in aggregate is with more sophisticated computations that use occurrence records to model things like habitat suitability or risks. For example, thousands of amphibian records (combining both citizen science observations and museum specimens) overlain with known range maps, landcover, and elevation predict the vulnerability of different amphibian species based on habitat availability (Ficetola et al. 2014).

You can see from these examples that photos submitted to National Geographic’s Great Nature Project have the potential to help us better understand and protect species around the world.

During May 15-25, National Geographic’s Great Nature Project invites people all over the world to get outside and share their photos of plants, animals, and fungi as part of a global snapshot of biodiversity. This event kicks off with the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park BioBlitz (May 15-­16), includes the International Day of Biodiversity (May 22), and ends on Memorial Day (U.S. holiday, May 25). Visit greatnatureproject.org to learn more.

Carrie Seltzer, manages National Geographic’s Great Nature Project. She has a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Illinois in Chicago.

 

Comments

  1. Lisa Brunetti
    Jama-Manabi Province-Ecuador
    May 23, 2015, 8:54 pm

    I live in a birding paradise on a mangrove-studded river. Over the past five or so years, the area around my house has naturalized with native plants, most of them volunteer that provide food and shelter for an increasing number of birds and insects. Until this Nature Project, I’ve never stopped to inventory every single species and have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Thank you for nudging us to open our eyes and be the inspectors of our ecosystems.

  2. Joy Poli
    Glenview, IL
    May 14, 2015, 12:22 pm

    This is so cool! Great job, Carrie!!