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  5. Canadian Museum of Nature seeks nature enthusiasts to record data for thousands of Arctic plants

Canadian Museum of Nature seeks nature enthusiasts to record data for thousands of Arctic plants

Canadian Museum of Nature.

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View of the Expedition Arctic Botany page on Zooniverse.

Have an interest in plants? Keen on the Arctic? Enjoy transcription? The Canadian Museum of Nature has a role for you!

Anyone with internet access can join the museum’s “citizen-science” project that has already engaged about 1,500 users since January, recording online data for about 16,000 Arctic plants, some collected almost 200 years ago.

“Whether you have an interest in nature, history, museums, or the challenge of deciphering hand-written script, anyone can contribute,” says Jennifer Doubt, the museum’s Curator of Botany. She manages the safekeeping of more than 1 million plant specimens housed in the National Herbarium of Canada, which is located at the museum’s national collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec.

The project, dubbed Expedition Arctic Botany, is accessible through a web site called Zooniverse. Contributions from citizen scientists make it possible for botanists and others around the world to access critical information about the museum’s world-class Arctic plant collection—helping to answer questions connected with biodiversity, endangered species, conservation efforts and more.

“The magical combination of the plants with the locations where they grew, and the dates they were collected makes it possible to not only study countless aspects of plant life throughout the Arctic, but also to track changes to plant life over time,” explains Doubt. “All this while following the footsteps of heroic, tragic, or dastardly characters who walked the North with trusty plant presses.”

The preamble to the project was the digital scanning of about 100,000 Arctic plant specimens on flat sheets and 15,000 lichens in envelopes with their associated labels. With support from the Sitka Foundation, this exhaustive work was completed over two years by Doubt and her team of collections staff and volunteers.

With images in hand, the next step has been to record the data on the labels—some typed, some handwritten by the collector. These labels make the specimens scientifically relevant, with information such as the species name, where it was collected, and who collected it.

The data entry is time consuming, which is where Zooniverse comes in. This portal engages the public at large to document reams of information for scientific and historical projects—whether sourced from historical photos, archival records, or natural history specimens.

Once logged into Expedition Arctic Botany, users are presented with the images of a scanned herbarium sheet or dried lichen specimen. They enter what they read on the labels; to ensure quality control, the information needs to be transcribed by five different users.

Computer algorithms created by technical assistant Evan Seed assess the entries for consistency—when  there’s a match, the transcription for the specimen is then assigned a single, accurate record to share with the world! Users can also access a wealth of insider information about the specimens and transcription tasks through a talk board moderated by museum digitization expert Kim Madge.

Among the explorers associated with the plants are a cast of characters that roamed the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut going back to the 19th century. There is Alf Erling Porsild, the museum’s “reindeer” botanist, who greatly expanded the museum’s Arctic plant collection during the 1940s; Margaret Oldenburg, an independent self-taught botanist who funded her travels in the Arctic in the 1940s and 1950s; and Sir John Rae, medical doctor and naturalist who famously searched for the lost team of Sir John Franklin in the late 1840s and early 1850s. 

With thousands of specimens still to be databased, there will be plenty to keep people busy over the next year. Next up is a “set” of 5,100 Arctic lichens to be reviewed, as well as new label information about geographic location and associated habitats to be entered.

Jennifer Doubt is pleased with the progress to date. “Lots of people are surprised to see the diversity of plants in the Arctic regions. This project allows us to share that knowledge, make connections with new people and to spread the word about the collection and about Canada’s Arctic,” she explains.

Watch this video with Jennifer Doubt to learn more about the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35H9HcDmHus&list=PLcOriFlZ5k0U4o57_ZOA6jNj-6k3EuDlw&index=5