Museums offer visitors an extraordinary look into the history and nature of the world. But behind the scenes are even greater collections of specimens – fossil records of plant species that no longer exist, of the first vertebrates to evolve, and of wild, new species yet to be classified.
Across the U.S., an estimated one billion specimens have been collected, many of which we are still learning about. For roughly two decades now, scientists have been faced with the monumental task of digitizing these samples, in order to make analyses easier and faster. To accelerate the digitizing process, Rob Guralnick, an Associate Curator at the Florida Museum, has rallied the public to help. He created an online platform for citizen scientists called Notes From Nature, which allows anyone to participate in the digitization process.
“There are people who love museums who never get the chance to explore outside of the exhibits. You never get to walk into the Collections and see what’s in there,” says Guralnick. “And to me, the true transformative power of Notes from Nature is to basically open that door to anyone across the globe and say, ‘you can take part.’”
Participants help add to the Notes From Nature database by uploading photographs of the specimens and labeling them with useful data, such as where and where the specimen was found, and any other relevant information that’s available. Anyone can do it. Guralnick says the contributions from volunteers have played an important role in alleviating the bottleneck of specimens that need to be digitized. To date, an estimated 13,000 volunteers have helped on Notes from Nature, digitizing more than 2.5 million specimens.
“I am always surprised people are willing to help on a task that requires great patience and care, and which can also feel endless,” says Guralnick.
The platform not only allows the public to be involved in science, but creates an easier way for researchers to launch new projects. Any researcher interested in analyzing specimens with a specific research objective can create his or her own “expedition” on the Notes From Nature platform, which is hosted on Zooniverse (an online hub full of engaging citizen science projects). Researchers share their project by first creating a guide that informs volunteers about the project and how the data should be uploaded and labelled within the database. On Notes from Nature, expeditions cover everything from Texan flora to terrestrial parasites.
Guralnick’s own research project, Nitfix, is supported by Notes From Nature. He is working with several other researchers on a quest to map out the evolution of a group of plants that form a unique, symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. By working together, the plants and bacteria are able to suck nitrogen gas out of the air and convert it into nutrients that are beneficial for plant growth. This relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria allows the plants to survive in environments that otherwise would be inhospitable. How this symbiotic relationship between plants and bacteria evolved remains a mystery, but uncovering the clues could have huge ecological and agricultural implications.
AAAS Members Doug and Pam Soltis are researchers at the University of Florida who are also working with Guralnick on this project to map out plants that rely on nitrogen-fixing bacteria. However, the sheer number of plant species posed a challenge, as about 30,000 plant species form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. “So we’re trying to study about half of that group in order to find out where the origins of that symbiosis occur,” explains Pam. “This is where Notes from Nature comes into play.”
“When you have thousands of specimens that you are trying to handle, these tools [such as Notes from Nature] really come in handy,” Doug adds. “They are great.”
To date, the Nitfix project has sampled 15,000 plant species, in part thanks to the work of Notes From Nature volunteers.
Both Pam and Doug teach courses at the University of Florida. This term, they have been showing their students how to use Notes From Nature to generate digital specimen data. “They thought it was a great experience to actually contribute to the building [a] database. And now as citizen scientists, they are able to get a better view of the whole process for generating the data and then ultimately using the data,” Pam says.
For Soltis’ and Guralnick the platform is especially useful for exposing the public to science and creating a community. Notes From Nature has chat features that allow volunteers to ask questions and engage with the managers and project leaders. “You think of this task of transcribing records as kind of lonely or boring, and it really is anything but,” says Guralnick. “It’s super collaborative.”
For Doug, who was recently recognized as a AAAS Fellow, it has been especially great to see new people engaging in science. “It’s always exciting to – well for people of all ages, but children in particular – to see the power of when they realize how exciting and neat biodiversity is,” he says. “There’s just something really magical about that.”
The Notes From Nature platform continues to grow, counter to what Guralnick expected when he first endeavoured to create it.
“When I started this I thought – this is cool, we’ll do it for while and we’ll see how it goes. Maybe we’ll close shop in a couple of years and move on,” he says. “And seven years later, there’s still this huge, powerful, exciting, awesome future [for the platform]. This is so exciting and it’s just the start.”