Energy & Environment

A crowd-sourced atlas of Vermont’s living things

Atlas of Vermont Life

Dog vomit slime molds, fish crows, bulblet bladderferns, and shining fungus beetles — these are a few of Vermont’s lesser-known residents.

Where are they and their more common relatives found? Are Vermont’s wild creatures moving northward as Vermont’s climate changes? Where are the most important wild places in Vermont to conserve?

The Atlas of Vermont Life aims to help researchers answer these questions. The atlas, launched on Jan. 1 by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies,  is a website and database that uses crowd-sourcing to map Vermont’s wildlife. Anyone, be they elementary school student, retiree or scientist, can add wildlife observations to the website,  thereby contributing to science and conservation. And anyone can look at the online maps to see what animals live in their neighborhood.

“One of the most amazing things about the nature of Vermont is how little we know,” said Kent McFarland, senior conservation biologist for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. “The atlas will generate excitement, discoveries, and greater understanding of biodiversity across the state.”

The homepage of the Atlas of Vermont Life is dominated by a Google map dotted with teardrop markers. The markers indicate places where someone saw a given creature. Click on a marker and it will tell you what that creature was. Recent observations include an American tree sparrow in Middlebury, Norway spruce in Woodstock, and, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, Rhinovirus, the common cold, in Burlington. (The atlas appears to allow viruses, even though whether they are technically alive is up for debate).

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies believes the atlas is the first of its kind in any state.

Though it may never document every single species in Vermont (think of the millions of bacteria lurking in the soil beneath our feet), it could help studies of the more identifiable groups, such as birds and plants.

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The website, a subset of iNaturalist.org, welcomes users to enter the name, exact location, and an optional photograph of their sightings. Experts then confirm or correct identifications, improving the quality of the data.
Atlas of Vermont Life screenshot
Though the website officially launched on Jan. 1, McFarland said it’s pulled previous Vermont observations from the general iNaturalist website. So far, 22 users have contributed more than 3,000 observations of 1,001 species in Vermont since 2001.

How will researchers use the atlas?

“I can envision a million ways to use datasets like this,” said McFarland.

Getting hold of historical data is often tedious and time-consuming for researchers. When McFarland created the bumblebee atlas for Vermont, he looked at each of 3,000 bumblebee specimens housed at the University of Vermont and Yale. These specimens revealed the habitats and overall ranges of all the species of bumblebees in Vermont. Bumblebee populations are shrinking fast, so information on where they’ve been in the past is crucial to understand what factors might be causing them to decline.

“What if we had these big datasets, what if we started them right now?” asked McFarland. Fifty years from now, researchers wouldn’t have to spend so much time combing through specimen cabinets to find answers to their questions. “Even common species, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” as the climate changes. Finding answers quickly could help conservationists protect vulnerable species.

McFarland is also eager for the public to add roadkill sightings. These observations could help state agencies, like the Vermont Agency of Transportation, make roads safer for both humans and animals by building fences or culverts where animals are frequently hit by cars.

The atlas can also harness volunteers to help scientists and conservationists with specific problems. The Center for Ecostudies could post a specific request on the website, asking, for example, for volunteers to map the spread of invasive species. This could inform the state whether eradication worked, where it’s needed, or whether it’s worth it.

McFarland started Vermont eBird, a similar website devoted to bird observations, in 2004. “It took awhile to get people into it,” he said, but now there are around 100,000 observations a month.

McFarland hopes the atlas will become a clearinghouse for information on Vermont’s biological diversity, where researchers and amateurs can mingle and learn from each other. McFarland said that iNaturalist is available as a smartphone app and data from Flickr and Facebook are easy to upload to the atlas. The atlas is online at http://inaturalist.org/projects/atlas-of-vermont-life.

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Audrey Clark

About Audrey

Audrey Clark writes articles on climate change and the environment for VTDigger, including the monthly column Landscape Confidential. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from Prescott College in Arizona, she worked as a field ecology research assistant and college teaching assistant for five years. Among her adventures during that period, Audrey identified tiny flowers while kneeling on the burning ground in the Mojave Desert in the summer, interviewed sea turtle poachers in Africa, and tracked wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Audrey began studying the nature of Vermont in 2010 and received her master’s of science from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program in 2012. She has worked as a freelance environmental journalist since then. She also works at UVM’s Pringle Herbarium, where she handles 100-year-old plant specimens. Audrey is learning fiddle and scientific illustration and lives in Burlington with her partner, cat, several dozen guppies, a few shrimp, and too many snails.

Email: [email protected]

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