Fossil primates, ancient mollusks and exotic butterflies will soon be coming to your home—as long as you have a personal computer.
This week, the National Science Foundation awarded a five-year, $15.5 million grant to the iDigBio project based at the University of Florida to continue leading the national effort to digitize biodiversity collections and make them available online.
iDigBio combines the efforts of the Florida Museum of Natural History, UF’s College of Engineering Advanced Computing Information Systems Laboratory and the Institute for Digital Information and Scientific Communication at Florida State University.
Initiated by the NSF’s Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program in 2011, iDigBio aims to make the vast amount of information in biodiversity collections readily available online. Collaborating with faculty and staff at 450 collections from 270 institutions across all 50 states, iDigBio’s search portal at iDigBio.org contains more than 64 million specimen records and 14 million images.
“There are probably a billion specimens in the U.S., but the information about them isn’t easily accessible,” said Larry Page, iDigBio director and ichthyology curator at the Florida Museum. “If it’s online, you can find in seconds what it might have taken you weeks or even months to find before.”
By creating a substantial online database, the collaborators hope to promote further research to answer fundamental questions about the history of life on Earth, distributions of species, ecosystem function and extinction patterns. Scientists can use collections data to better educate the public and develop more informed environmental and economic policies.
“This program is about making information available to researchers, educators, policymakers and the general public — anyone who wants it,” Page said.
He said teachers appreciate being able to show their science, art and geography students images found in the database.
“People like to have images to illustrate the topic they’re talking about,” Page said. “There are lots of images online already, but they’re often not accurate. The images we’re putting online have been verified by scientists, so users know they’re getting an accurate image.”
Outside the classroom, people who rely on biodiversity for their hobbies such as fishing and bird-watching can benefit from the increasing breadth of data.
“These people can look up the distribution of a fish or bird they are interested in finding, and use the maps to locate them,” Page said.
Page said the project could double the number of specimen records in the database during the next five years.
“Some people think it’s going to slow down because we have the really big institutions in the database already, but most of the records are for plants, fungi, fossils and vertebrate groups,” Page said. “A lot of the really big collections are invertebrates, and I’m hoping the Florida Museum and other institutions with large insect and marine invertebrate collections start flooding us with specimen records.”
• Learn more about iDigBio
• Learn more about the UF’s College of Engineering Advanced Computing Information Systems Laboratory.