Citizen science as a tool for expanding our capacity to georeference biodiversity specimens

TitleCitizen science as a tool for expanding our capacity to georeference biodiversity specimens
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsEllwood, Elizabeth R., Bart H., Krings M., Jue Dean, Mann J., Rios Nelson, and Mast Austin R.
Conference NameBotany 15, Botanical Society of America Annual Meeting 2015
Date Published07/2015
Conference LocationEdmonton, Alberta, Canada
AbstractThe majority of the world’s billions of biodiversity specimens are tucked away in museum cabinets with only minimal, if any, digital records of the information they contain. Most specimens were collected before the use of digital photography, database management systems, or global positioning systems (GPS) and therefore their discoverability for use in research and education are limited. Global efforts to digitize specimens – including imaging, transcribing label information, and georeferencing collection localities – are underway, yet the task is daunting. However, many activities associated with digitization do not require special training, and as such can benefit from the involvement of citizen scientists. Here, we examine the efficacy of citizen scientists in georeferencing herbarium specimen collection localities, i.e. assigning a latitude and longitude to a textual locality description. In this experiment, each of 270 specimens was georeferenced ~8 times using the online platform GEOLocate. All specimens were collected in the highly biodiverse Apalachicola National Forest, Florida, USA. For comparison with the volunteer-derived points, an “expert” familiar with the local flora and collection areas also georeferenced each specimen and provided a radius of uncertainty based on the precision of the textual locality description. The locality details provided on herbarium specimen labels varied greatly, as did the volunteers’ estimation of localities. Volunteer points were an average of 4.62 km from the expert point of the same specimen, with a range of averages between less than half to over 30 km. We also examined the number of volunteer georeferences that, when averaged, would provide a locality estimate within the expert’s radius of uncertainty. We found that this number was highly dependent upon the details provided in the label text. These findings suggest that citizen scientists are capable of providing accurate georeferences of herbarium specimens, and we recommend that the downstream use of data be considered when employing citizen scientists in this activity. For certain applications of georeferenced data, for example landscape-level modeling, locality estimations from citizen scientists that fall within 5 km of the collection site are likely suitable. Finer scale applications, for example resampling the same population or individual, may require a level of precision beyond what a minimally trained citizen scientist can provide. As online mapping tools and georeferencing software improves, the ability of citizen scientists to provide precise georeferences will increase.