Citizen Science

Peek into the Cabinet of Curiosities

Leaves, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo © Sarah Hina / Flickr

Natural History has its roots in the ancient world, from Aristotle’s History of Animals to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Collection of specimens for “Cabinets of Curiosities” flourished during the Renaissance (many of them contained fantastical faked creatures) and some of the earliest Natural History museums, like the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, were founded.

By the 19th century, modern scientific collection had begun and many of today’s Natural History collections originate from this period. At present, there are an estimated 2 billion (yes, really billion) specimens housed in Natural History museums around the world – a truly astonishing record of life on earth.

However, much of that information was recorded by hand or typed, making it difficult to access and impossible to bring together into any kind of big data analysis.

You can help to make these records freely and easily available for research and analysis by transcribing records from Natural History museums around the world on Notes From Nature. They are asking for help to complete as much as possible of their remaining collections (particularly the Macrofungi and Herbarium collections) hosted on the Zooniverse citizen science portal by the end of May before they launch a new website with forthcoming collections.

Each transcription takes about 3 minutes to complete, all work is done online, and it’s very easy to learn. Having started with over 110,000 records to transcribe, these projects now only have around 14,000 remaining.

Help Fill the Gaps in Human Knowledge of Biodiversity

Opening up a Cabinet of Curiosities or, in this case, the storage section of a Natural History museum is opening a window to the past.

"Musei Wormiani Historia," the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Wormius' cabinet of curiosities. Image in the Public Domain
“Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Wormius’ cabinet of curiosities. Image in the Public Domain

Despite copious descriptions from Aristotle, Pliny and numerous poets, we might never know precisely which species were common in ancient Greece and Rome at a given time. However, with detailed records and preserved specimens from the 19th century onwards, we have some information about the biodiversity and ecosystems of more than two centuries.

Specimen from the SELU Herbarium. Image © Notes from Nature
Specimen from the SELU Herbarium. Image © Notes from Nature

Specimen labels typically include species information, location of collection (at least to the county level), and the date of collection (at least to the month). That’s crucial baseline data for learning where individual species have occurred over time, understanding past ecosystem composition, and tracking fluctuation in species locations.

In order to study past and present environmental changes on a large scale, these data must be digitized so that they can be analyzed using modern technology. Because there are millions, if not billions, of records in museums yet to be transcribed, scientists and museum staff need help from the public to accomplish this goal quickly and efficiently.

One transcription may sound like a small contribution, but each one is an important scientific contribution that fills a gap in our knowledge of global biodiversity.

Get Involved

Choose a collection on Notes from Nature and start transcribing. You can zoom and pan the image of the specimen label until it is easy to read. You transcribe by answering a series of questions based on the information in the label (e.g. country, state, date, etc.).

Specimen from the Herbarium of Florida State University. Image © Notes from Nature
Specimen from the Herbarium of Florida State University. Image © Notes from Nature

I recommend starting with the Herbarium collection from SERNEC, as it has examples to help you with the steps and you can see the image of the dried specimen. Once you’re familiar with the process from the Herbarium collection, it’s easy to switch to the Macrofungi collection, which has similar questions to answer.

If you feel like a challenge, there are also about 1,000 records left in the Ornithology collection – these take about 15 minutes to complete and have a video tutorial to explain the process.

Check out the discussion forum to share cool findings or ask difficult questions.

Notes from Nature’s goal is to digitize all of the world’s biological collections one record at a time. Give it a try by digitizing one record today!

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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