Antweb expands its citizen-science program

A new Android-based program from the online biodiversity site AntWeb:

The Urban Ant Collector app is an Android app that allows you to collect and record data just like a professional scientist. It uses Open Data Kit, a free and open-source set of tools which help organizations author, field, and manage mobile data collection solutions.

Each time you find an ant in a new location, you’ll use this app to:

  1. Photograph the ant
  2. Enter basic information on the ant’s location
  3. Enter basic information about yourself, the collector
  4. Create a collection number for mailing a sample specimen to the California Academy of Sciences

It seems silly to me that we in the U.S. lack a national biodiversity survey program. That is, there’s no biology equivalent to USGS. Our knowledge of where species occur in our country is- and I’m really not kidding- a haphazard history of where collectors have gone on vacation. As a result some parts of the continent are basically black holes. Try finding a comprehensive list of the ants of Kentucky, for example. It doesn’t exist.

That's right. No reliable records of the ubiquitous Formica field ants in Kentucky (via Kye Hedlund)

For most insects we remain with only a vague idea about what is found where. Without baseline knowledge, it is next to impossible to determine if any particular species is in danger of extinction. We can’t effectively track the spread of pests. We can’t test to see if climate change is shifting species ranges. This is a big problem.

In the absence of a serious public commitment to biodiversity, we can augment the efforts of entomological professionals by tapping into the much larger pool of nature enthusiasts. With orders of magnitude more people on the lookout for insects, and in places where entomologists don’t often visit, these initiatives are guaranteed to make significant discoveries.  Especially if contributors take care to send in physical specimens so that trained taxonomists can verify the identification.

Thus, the Urban Ant Collector is a great idea. Now, if someone would just buy me an Android so I could participate…

24 thoughts on “Antweb expands its citizen-science program”

    1. They have some biology content, as does USDA and other agencies. But none of these provide an equivalent to the high-resolution natural resource maps of the sort USGS produces for geological features.

  1. Planning your next Myrmecological Vacation? Why not try beautiful New Jersey! Yes the garden state has much to offer in the way of ants. The beautiful Pine Barrens here are virtually untouched. And considering both are current and former governor have tried to pass bills that would allow long term logging programs to make way for more housing, nows you’re chance to tell them they’re wrong. From a geologist perspective the Pine Barrens are actually a time capsule waiting to be examined in greater detail. Lush swamp and bog land offering up droves of carnivorous plants. And if you like Gambling! Well New Jersey’s got you covered with Atlantic City featuring incredible lavish Casinos, one of which doubles as being a massive HD Television that can be viewed up to 60 miles out at sea! And if you like horrifying stenches that takes days of hard scrubbing to get out of your cloths, our capital city of Trenton has got you covered there too.

    New Jersey! Located near that other state that has the Statue of Liberty. And did I mention we have Crabs! King Crabs that is hehe.

    1. The Pine Barrens are awesome! I’ve seen tons of ants there, but I’m terrible at identification…actually its something I want to learn. There are like NO myrmecologists out there though!

        1. Thanks for the article James. I’ll be sure to give that a read. Just glancing through it though I see some of the genera and species names could use some updating.

          Andrew, shoot me an email if you’d like to get together sometime. I’ve always wanted to explore the pine barrens but I’m always afraid of abandoning my car somewhere.

    2. Stefan Cover of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard collected ants in the pine barrens a while back. He would make a wonderful resource person for your ant adventures there.

  2. I agree with the idea of increasing collection in general, however I think there is a part missing here. Instead of collecting randomly and probably repeat sampling where it has already being done, I believe that it is more judicious to identify and then target areas which represent the “black holes” that you talk about.

    In the USA, Kentucky or West Virginia could be good targets (in fact records of Formica exist for Kentucky, cf Sociobiology 42(3): 701-713).

    A similar project in France was launched about 5 years ago now with a certain success:
    The project has been managed by a mix of amateurs and professionals which I think has helped the project to make it accessible to many people.

    The participation of non professional enthusiasts can only be beneficial in the long term.

    1. I’m glad you stopped in, Benoit. Your knowledge of ant distributions is second-to-none.

      Will initiate a citizen-science component?

    1. I was interested to note that M.V.Brian, in his book on British ants, published in 1977, was able to list the number of ant species (of the 42 then known) occurring in every county in England, Scotland and Ireland, based on a non-digitized, public database that already existed. The numbers show an even decrease from southernmost locations with 30 or so species, to the northernmost with 12-13, indicating a fairly thorough sampling to me.

  3. In general I agree that such an effort could be worth doing. However, there are a lot of insect species, in many life stages, some quite cryptic, and not very many scientists both inclined and capable of identification of this kind of volume intake. This is a non-trivial issue, and this is a big country, not even considering its world-wide territories and dependencies.

    Certainly at this point, considering the rather large difference between Federal income and expenditures, it is not a very good time to start up a program like this. You would need to train up an army of those capable of identification, create/obtain the means to identify in a large number of taxa and life stages (which may not currently exist, for instance many larval stages can not currently be identified), find a place to house this army and its collection, etc etc. The hurdles are quite significant. Simply consolidating and building the databases from the existing knowledge base of millions of publications is a daunting task.

    1. That’s why they call it citizen science…I know several people who participate in such in Texas. They have done training and many spout species names, etc. without batting an eye…not exactly “nonprofessional”…They do it because they love it — in my limited experience, often much better than graduate students.

  4. Nobody has yet mentioned the enormous contribution that amateurs have made to ornithology. (OK it’s somewhat easier to identify birds, but only because more people are interested in looking at them.)

    A vast amount of information is collected each year (by amateurs) during the Boxing Day Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Count. This is supplemented by the work of highly knowledgeable, licensed, unpaid individuals who do extensive work each year banding birds. (That’s ‘ringing’ for the English.)

    Most discoveries in astronomy are made by unpaid enthusiasts.

    I think that this is a brilliant idea!

    Too bad that the app apparently does not include Canada.

    But then I would have to get a cellphone.

  5. I live in Kentucky, and have always been amazed at how little is known about the ant species native to this state. I currently have a DIY formicarium whith some sort of campo colony. I would like to have them identified because I thought they were Camponotus Herculeanus, until I read about the fact that they are considered extinct. I don’t have an android although I can run Droid apps. on my p.c. with an emulator. I would really like to i.d. these ants.
    Nice site by the way!

  6. Wow. Citizen science for ants sounds like a great idea. Let’s see….all I have to do is dowload an android app and figure out how to use it. Then I need to buy some blood collection tubes from Amazon. Then I need to collect an ant. Then once I have it mailed off, I just need to wait for Brian Fisher to find the time to identify my ant to species.

    This is really going to change myrmecology!

    1. Few would argue this is a practical businesses model. But for the young at heart with a passion for discovery this is a good diversion.
      From the practical wife of an an ant collector.

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