Have you ever found something unfamiliar, some strange or spectacular flora or fauna, and wanted to find out more about it? A good start would be finding out what it’s called, so you can look up more information about it. But how can you find out?
In the past, natural history museums would provide valuable identifications of flora and fauna, and you can often still take specimens to a museum for identification (ring them first to check this service is available). But catching living things can sometimes be difficult or dangerous. Moreover, there is an unnecessary risk of damaging something if you try to catch it, and you should usually leave things where they are anyway (especially if they are in a National Park). Now, with the magic of the internet and ‘crowdsourcing’ you don’t need to catch things, just photograph them, and you might be able to help scientists at the same time… it’s a win-win!
There are a number of internet applications (apps) that can help you record and identify your sightings of flora and fauna; one of my favorites is Bowerbird: www.bowerbird.org.au. This app was made and is managed in Australia, under the guidance of Dr Ken Walker at Museum Victoria. The basic operation of Bowerbird is straightforward. You can upload a photograph of any flora or fauna you see, along with some details of where you saw it (you can mark the location on a map). It’s okay if you don’t know what your sighting was – once it’s online, other Bowerbird users can help you to identify it. Ken has encouraged the development of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic Bowerbird community, including many professional and amateur naturalists.
I’ll give you an example of how it works. I recently went camping with family and friends at Deep Creek, about an hour-and-a-half south of Adelaide (I highly recommend you visit this Conservation Park). While we were there, we were fascinated by the fungi. I’m no fungi expert (a mycologist), but I was keen to know more about them. The children had fun spotting fungus for me (under strict instructions not to touch it), and I spent quite some time on the ground focused on fungi photography. You can see some of the photos from our trip, including the fascinating fungi, on facebook.
I also posted some of the photos on Bowerbird. I posted photos of a couple of fungi and a frog we saw nearby. Bowerbird is like facebook for flora and fauna. Once the photos are posted online, the Bowerbird community can comment on them. Most importantly for me, the Bowerbird community love to identify other people’s photos. Within a few hours the frog and the fungi were identified. You can see them all here (click on the individual sighting to see the identification). The process, leveraging the services or ideas from a large group of people, is called ‘crowdsourcing’. Within Bowerbird, the crowdsourcing is set up so that people can check and discuss identifications, to make sure the identifications are accurate.
There’s more to Bowerbird than the identification of the strange or spectacular species you spot. Once you’re onboard, you can join or create your own ‘projects’. There are two main approaches for using Bowerbird projects. The first approach is for people interested in particular groups of flora or fauna, such as frogs or fungi (taxonomic groups). The group of people can create a project to share their sightings. I added my posts to the appropriate projects (e.g., I added my frog post to the Frog Watch project). Adding your posts to an appropriate existing project will help bring it to the attention of the project members – in my example that was people interested in frogs.
I think the second approach to using projects is really exciting. You can start a project for a particular location, any location. For example, you could start a project for your backyard or for a place you walk or work. It’s a great opportunity to keep a record of the flora and fauna you see. Once you are going, it’s easy to get hooked looking for new things to photograph and post to your Bowerbird project, as many amateur naturalists will understand. And along the way you are learning what your sightings are, which allows you to find further information about them, online or in books.
There is one more important feature of Bowerbird that I think is important to mention. All of the posts on Bowerbird that are identified, like my fungi and my frog, are uploaded into the Atlas of Living Australia (the ALA). The ALA is important as it’s Australia’s repository for information about biodiversity. Scientists in universities, museums, government departments and industry all use the ALA to store and access information about plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms. The Bowerbird community has made some valuable contributions to the ALA, including the only sightings of some species, the only photographs of some species, and sightings of some species well outside their known range. You don’t need to do anything more than post your sightings on Bowerbird – all the systems are in place to have your post identified and shared with the world!
Join the Bowerbird community today to post your own sightings, join projects that interest you, or create your own backyard project: www.bowerbird.org.au