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Friday, March 22, 2013

ECHO Partners with Vermont Atlas of Life


ECHO has joined one of the most ambitious conservation projects Vermont has ever seen: an online inventory of every living thing in the state. The new Vermont Atlas of Life is collecting sightings from citizen naturalists and professional biologists and presenting them in the form of maps, photos, and even social networking. From mushrooms to maples, moose to microorganisms, everything counts.

“What’s amazing about the nature of Vermont is how little we know about it,” says Kent McFarland, conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), which launched the project on January 1. “We can’t recognize all the risks to biodiversity in this state without a better understanding of what’s here and where it lives.”

ECHO will be featuring the Vermont Atlas of Life in the new Action Lab opening this spring. Each season the Citizen Science station in the lab will highlight a project that nature enthusiasts cam participate in to help scientists gather much needed data. For the opening of the Action Lab, ECHO is delighted to showcase a Vermont-based project.

Anyone can participate in the atlas online through iNaturalist, an online platform designed for data gathering projects like the Vermont Atlas of Life. Although the atlas may never actually identify every last species, the atlas will grow into the most complete accounting of life in Vermont.

Bumblebees respond to changing land use practices and other human-induced pressures. 
Yet we know little about the bumblebees of Vermont. Credit: K.P. McFarland
Ultimately the project will generate research-grade data to help citizens and scientists discover, track and conserve Vermont’s biodiversity. If a destructive invasive insect appears in Vermont, for example, the atlas can accept reports from anyone around the state and allow researchers to track movement of the pest. Biologists monitoring the effects of climate change use the atlas data to generate real-time distributions of rare plants and animals and how they may be declining or advancing.

Participants can submit sightings to the project with a smartphone application as well, which McFarland says will encourage more young people to observe nature. “We’re bringing the virtual world to the natural world,” he says.

VCE already manages a popular online bird inventory project called Vermont eBird and has recently helped to launched a similar butterfly project called eButterfly. The new atlas project extends this kind of citizen discovery to everything from common plants to obscure lichens, from microscopic animals called “waterbears” to agricultural pests. It is among the first attempts to document each and every plant, animal and otherwise in an entire state.

“This may seem to be an odd analogy, but we should be like big, national box-store chain with an inventory of every product in the warehouse,” says McFarland. “In fact, since we’ve launched the atlas, we’ve already discovered new locations for an endangered plant and a rare dragonfly.”

Many naturalists have noted that Pine Grosbeaks from the north have
arrived in Vermont this winter.
Credit: Bryan Pfeiffer, Wings Photography

At the Vermont Atlas Life web site participants can to enter the name of species they discover, its location and an optional photograph. The project also allows experts to corroborate or correct the on-line reports or even to identify a participant’s photo of an unidentified species.

“We often hear about biologists studying the incredible biodiversity found living on a single tree in some far-flung tropical forest,” said McFarland, “but rarely do we investigate the complete diversity here at home. Now we will.”

In the months following its launch, the atlas soon attracted support from an array of Vermont conservation organizations, including: the North Branch Nature Center, Keeping Track, Four Winds Institute, ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, Vital Communities, Northern Woodlands magazine and the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum.

“Over the next few years, we’re hoping everyone teams up to help discover, map and conserve our natural heritage in Vermont,” exclaimed McFarland.

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