Online volunteers help scientists speed up species discovery and focus research

15 May 2015

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Janet, a volunteer at the South Australian Museum

Worldwide, an estimated five million invertebrate species are yet to be described (http://www.environment.gov.au/node/13866).  Invertebrates – animals without a backbone or vertebral column – are the most abundant group of animals on earth and yet they are the least documented. In Australia alone there are around 98,000 described species and an estimated 222,000 that are still unknown to science.

Scientists seeking to describe these species must compare them to similar specimens, held in natural history museums across Australia and around the world. Much of the important information on these specimens is only found on their collection label or in handwritten journals or registers.

“Traditionally, scientists visit the Museum and look through jars and drawers of specimens or borrow them for their research – this is a slow way of doing science,” said Ms Alexis Tindall, Project Manager – Digitisation.

The South Australia Museum holds around two million specimens in its terrestrial invertebrate collection and around 1.75 million marine invertebrates. The Museum has begun a digitisation program to help address this backlog.

“We estimate that we have only electronically databased around eight per cent of the terrestrial invertebrates and less than one per cent of marine invertebrates. So most of our collections and information aren’t easily accessible to scientists or the general public,” Ms Tindall said.  

“The volunteer digitisation program started by photographing holotypes – the specimens used to describe a species – from the entomology collection. This led to photographing specimens on demand as they were requested by researchers or used in publications.”

“Over the last year, we’ve started working with in-house and online volunteers to get parts of our terrestrial and marine invertebrates collection digitised through the DigiVol portal. This has expanded our capacity and brought a whole new kind of volunteer on board.”

DigiVol was developed by the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) and the Australian Museum to harness the power of online volunteers to digitise biodiversity data. Wikipedia is another example of crowdsourcing volunteers.

Volunteers on DigiVol view detailed photographs of the specimens and transcribe their labels. The labels contain vital information including their species name, collector, collection date and location. The Museum has two online expeditions underway at the moment: sea urchins and hoverflies.

“It’s a very flexible way of volunteering. You can volunteer at any time of day or night and spend as much or as little time as you’d like. Anyone can do it and make a significant contribution to science,” Ms Tindall said.

There are enormous benefits to making these data digital and getting them online. Developments in digital technologies are making it easier to undertake complex analysis using data derived from these collections. Using the ALA’s spatial analysis tool users can bring together faunal, floral and fine-grained layers of meteorological data, mapping or plotting these data in minutes. The new Phylojive tool allows users to combine the phylogenetic trees that describe evolutionary relationships, with other spatial or temporal data in the Atlas. These powerful tools have the potential to make research more efficient, increase the use of the Museum’s collections and also inspire new, unanticipated kinds of research.

The millions of animal specimens held at the South Australian Museum are an irreplaceable record of the environment over time. They are used constantly for research by taxonomists, biologists, ecologists and many others; in all levels of education; and as inspiration for artists and other lovers of the natural environment.

So far, online volunteers have created more than 4000 new database records from the invertebrate collections. The current hoverfly expedition has been timed to coincide with similar expeditions from the University of Queensland and the Australian Museum. Many species of hoverfly are important pollinators and predators that contribute to our agricultural industries and the natural environment.

Scientists will be able to easily see where particular hoverfly species were recorded in the past and how distributions may have changed over time. With digitised hoverfly information from three collections, it is hoped to quickly progress research on this important family.

“New technologies adopted by the Museum are allowing people from all walks of life to access specimens and collections in ways that their collectors would never have imagined 100 or more years ago,” Ms Tindall said.

“Our online volunteers get to walk in the footsteps of collectors across the country and throughout history as they contribute to science.”

In National Volunteer Week, the Museum would like to encourage everyone to volunteer online at volunteer.ala.org.au, become expedition leaders and help us share our priceless collections.


sea urchin specimen

The Heterocentrotus mamillatus, or slate pencil urchin, is found in Indo-Pacific waters, with this juvenile collected in the Red Sea. This specimen is part of our Marine Invertebrates collection and was photographed by volunteer Janet Atkinson. 


sea urchin specimen

The Parasalenia gratiosa, or red urchin, was found in waters around Lindeman Island, Queensland. It’s been photographed for our online expeditions by volunteer Alice Grieve. 


sea urchin specimen

An example of Heliocidaris erythrogramma, or the purple sea urchin, photographed by volunteer Alice Grieve. These urchins are endemic to Australia and are found from southern Queensland, all around the south-eastern and southern coasts, to Western Australia.