Citizen Science Wednesday: Tidying Up Range Maps

Rough green snake

Rough green snake; photo by cotinis via http://www.flickr.com/photos/pcoin/99047127/; used under Creative Commons license

Where do different animals live? That doesn’t seem like a terribly complicated question. After all, any field guide to anything will have range maps for whatever the guide is about.

In researching my book, I learned that those range maps are… well… only OK. In reality, they serve as general guidelines than absolute truth.

Citizen science is pretty well-suited to help improve them. Professional scientists, after all, can’t be everywhere to check if a given species has shown up in a given place. Amateurs can help to fill in the gaps.

One of the most celebrated examples of this was the nine-spotted ladybug. It’s the state insect of New York, but it hadn’t been seen in the state for almost 30 years and was believed to be extinct in the state. Until, of course, it was found again by a participant in the Lost Ladybug Project in 2011. (This was the second notable discovery of a nine-spotted ladybug through the project; a preteen brother and sister found one in Virginia in 2006, which was the first one found in the eastern US in 14 years.)

Many projects aim simply to get a grasp of what might live where. The Minnesota Odonata Survey Project, for example, is trying to rectify the fact that there are counties without any records of dragonflies or damselflies, even though those counties certainly have odonates in them. As project leader Kurt Mead told me, the state is sort of a crossroads for dragonflies and damselflies, and species from all parts of the continent have ranges that overlap there.

Camera phones are a great boon to this kind of work; they let amateurs document their finds, even if they don’t know for certain what they are, so that experts can make identifications and investigate further if needed.

I’m slowly populating the links section in the sidebar with citizen science projects. This week’s additions are this type of project that aim (at least in part) to help improve range maps of various species, including:

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Carolina Herp Atlas

Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

School of Ants

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2 thoughts on “Citizen Science Wednesday: Tidying Up Range Maps

    • Indeed there are. I’ll be writing about iNaturalist and similar large-scale documentation efforts in a future post, but I encourage anyone interested to check it out – inaturalist.org.

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