7 Resources for Natural History Nerds

Want to identify that feather you found on a hike? Or find out what kind of tracks a hermit crab leaves along a beach? These links can help you do that, and more.

This post feels a little bit like a confession. Hi, my name is Cara and I’m a natural history nerd. Happily for me, it’s a great time for that particular affliction because so much information about our world is online, easily accessible and interactive. Want to identify that feather you found on a hike? Or find out what kind of tracks a hermit crab leaves along a beach? The links below can help you do that, and more. And while these are my favorites, there are many more resources out there. If you have your own natural history go-to sites, please leave links in the comments with a little note about why you like them. I’m always on the lookout for new resources.

  1. NY Times Guide to Digitized Natural History Collections

    Technically, this is five resources in one place. The list, compiled by Michael Roston, contains links to the Encyclopedia of Life with information about every named species on Earth. If you’re into taxonomy, you can explore up and down the tree of life to see how species relate. As a special treat for natural history data geeks, there’s a link to the London Natural History Museum’s data portal (still in beta). Want to know what a tasmanian devil sounds like in the wild? You can download (under a Creative Commons License) scientific recordings from around the world, or browse the 3.5 million specimens they’ve already put on line.

    There are also links to iDigBio, a project supported by the National Science Foundation, that aims to digitize natural history collections from museums and universities across the United States, as well as a link to the Atlas of Living Australia, which is the perfect way to spend that five minutes sitting on hold before the conference call starts. (Or, true confession, to browse during and after the conference call, too.)

  2. USFWS Feather Atlas

    NOT a Barred Owl feather (it’s from a Red-shouldered Hawk) Thanks to Pepper from the Feather Atlas for the correction. © Cara Byington/TNC

    I stumbled onto the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s online atlas of flight feathers from North American birds while trying to identify a feather I’d found and photographed in the woods near my house. (It turned out to be a feather from a Barred Owl. Nope. It’s a tail feather from a Red-Shouldered Hawk.) My favorite feature is the identify feather tool that lets you narrow down your search by pattern and color, and then presents you with a selection of feathers for comparison. For people who are more feather-savvy than I am, you can also browse feathers by common or scientific name, or by taxonomic group.

    Quick pro tip: if you find feathers in the wild, resist the urge to collect them. According to the USFWS: “The possession of feathers and other parts of native North American birds without a permit is prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).” You can read more about feathers and the law, as well as exceptions, on the site.

  3. AmphibiaWeb

    Cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) Tennessee. © Stephen Alvarez

    I found AmphibiaWeb because I was homesick for Florida. I live in Maryland now and, of the many things I miss about my home state (the general craziness of Florida included), I really missed the sound of tree frogs in the wetlands behind my house. So I went looking for audio files and found AmphibiaWeb. Let me just say, if you like amphibians, do not click on this site unless you have some time to spend. It is a treasure trove of information and includes robust image, audio and video files. If you want to know about, for example, Boophis tephraeomystax (common name Dumeril’s bright-eyed frog), what it looks and sounds like, where it lives, the habitats it prefers and a wealth of other information, AmphibiaWeb has you covered. (To me, the frog, native to Madagascar, sounds like a rubber-soled shoe squeaking on a hardwood floor, but that’s me. Some people say it sounds like a yelping puppy. You can hear it for yourself.)

  4. Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

    This site really is All About Birds. I’ve been a frequent visitor since starting my Zero to Hero: Learn to be a Birder project last year. It has everything you would expect from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, species profiles, distribution and migration maps, images, audio and video. They even have a virtual bird to help people learn bird anatomy (extremely helpful for new(ish) birders like me). My favorite section is the Bird Academy. If you want to learn more about birding, this is a one-stop shop for online courses, tutorials and Birds 101, 201 and 301. I’m currently spending a lot of time learning bird songs (in preparation for spring migration) and their Bird Song Hero feature is fantastic. I embarrassed myself at my local coffee shop last week when I shouted “yes!” because I got all the bird songs right for the first time. (And, of course, I’ve made no secret of my love for Merlin, Cornell’s birding app.)

  5. NatureTracking

    Raccoon tracks Austin, TX © Cara Byington/TNC

    Some people have to put web site blockers like Focus or SelfControl on their computers to limit the amount of time they spend on Facebook or Reddit, I had to download one solely for NatureTracking. I love it because it has given me a whole new way to observe and connect with nature, from the fox that leaves tracks in my suburban backyard to tracks and signs I’ve found in remote backcountry areas. There are galleries of images for mammal, bird, herp, and invertebrate tracks, as well as instructions on learning to track and links to tracking schools. (I really want to go to tracking school). The site is very nicely organized and I spend most of my time on the galleries, which also include images of signs and scat. (Two words: snake scat.)

    NatureTracking also has its own mobile app, iTrack Wildlife (basic and pro versions), so you can “have a guide to animal tracks in your pocket.” I used it recently to id muddy raccoon tracks during a hike near Austin. NatureTracking also includes images from the North American Animal Tracks Database, an iNaturalist project where people share observations and images and simultaneously contribute to scientific research.

  6. Marine Species Identification Portal (Key to Nature)

    Queen conch shell inhabited by a hermit crab in the shallow coastal water of Warderick Wells Cay in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas. © Jeff Yonover

    This site can be a little difficult to navigate, but it has some excellent resources, including galleries and species profiles, for learning about marine species. My favorite features are the quizzes for learning to identify different species. If you’re planning a Caribbean trip (or just want to spend some time on a cold, dreary day daydreaming about exploring warm, sunshot waters), you can tackle the Interactive Guide to Caribbean Diving quiz. Choose from three levels: easy, intermediate and advanced and learn to id the different species you might see, from corals to eels, sharks to anemones. There’s also a quiz for marine mammals of the world, which even on easy, is still pretty difficult for me. (I always miss the Baikal seal).

  7. The Cloud Appreciation Society

    Clouds over Abaka Bay, Haiti © Tim Calvier

    With 40,000 members in 112 countries (the majority in the United Kingdom), this is a site by and for people who love clouds. They have nice galleries of images submitted by members and organized by cloud type. The clouds are searchable by name, from the basic types like cumulus and cirrus to cloud types and optical effects I’d never heard of before: horseshoe vortex, virga and infralateral arc, anyone? My favorite section, though, is Clouds that Look Like Things — it’s like an online Rorschach test, from a crepuscular rat over Hellin, Spain to a snail over Bruxner Park in Korora, New South Wales, Australia. If you like this, be sure to check out Justine Hausheer’s guide to cloud spotting.

  8. Bonus: MorphoSource

    Fossil Maiasaur Femur Bone discovered at The Nature Conservancy’s Egg Mountain site in Montana © Todd Meier

    This site is new to me (and technically falls outside the natural history / conservation science theme of the other sites), but it was so cool, I had to sneak it in. There are probably a lot of people who could resist a headline like Free Site Lets You Download and 3D Print Fossils. Clearly, I am not one of them. And even though I don’t have a 3D printer (yet), the site still lets me zoom in and out and rotate images, as well as download the media files. All you have to do is register and the fossils are yours to explore. Hello, bones from a 16-inch “devil frog” from Madagascar and vertebrae from Titanaboa.

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  1. Cara Byington says:

    Hi Pepper — Thanks so much for the correction. (And sigh) I was afraid that was going to happen — I’ll update the caption and clearly, I need to practice my feathers. It was likely bias showing because I found it near the tree where I know a barred owl roosts (at least it’s easy to tell the difference between the actual birds themselves even if feathers are defeating me).

  2. Pepper Trail says:

    Hi Cara, I’m the coordinator of The Feather Atlas at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, and am delighted that you included our site in your list of outstanding identification resources for naturalists. Thanks so much. However, I wanted to let you know that the feather pictured in your post is the tail feather of a Red-shouldered Hawk, not a Barred Owl. Compare it to: http://www.fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/feather.php?Bird=RSHA_tail_ad.

    All the best,

  3. Gary Milks says:

    As a bird nerd, I highly recommend ebird.org. Allaboutbirds describes the birds very well, but ebird tells you where they’re being seen now. One can also mine the historical data to see what might be seen wherever you might travel

  4. Cara Byington says:

    Thanks so much for the additions and comments. (I cannot wait to play with the Frog Quiz!) I’m already making a new list for an updated post with additional links.

  5. Dr Leslie Dean Brown (@VayaQuorum) says:

    I have one to add:

  6. Chris Gifford says:

    thanks this is super helpful!

  7. Tracy Hall says:

    Thanks for these resources. I also recommend this site for sharing and recording observations, exploring others’ observations, and contributing to biodiversity science: http://www.inaturalist.org

  8. Gary Staab says:

    Thank you for this article!

  9. Melanie Nelson Lynx says:

    Thanks for the links, from the staff at Werner Wildlife Museum in Casper, WY.