ISU Ecologist Launches Citizen Science Effort To Archive Specimens, Could Clue Researchers Into Past

Feb 2, 2019

An Iowa State University scientist is turning to the public to help her catalog thousands of species in a recently discovered collection at northwest Iowa’s Lakeside Lab.

Lori Biederman, an adjunct ecology professor, is looking for people to help transcribe labels that belong to around 7,000 preserved plant and animal specimens that she found in the lab over the summer. The collection is mostly made up of plants, but there are birds, insects and skin specimens as well. Most of the species are native to northwest Iowa.

The data, which is being classified on a platform called Zooniverse, will be accessible to people all over the world. Biederman says the database will help people learn more about diverse species whose populations have declined over time.

“You may not see an indigo bunting anymore in your daily life but you could see this was an indigo bunting and it was caught in Iowa,” Biederman said.

Agriculture and urbanization have led to a loss in biodiversity over the years, Biederman said. Many of the specimens are from the late 1800s and early 1900s and can clue researchers into the past, helping them understand how populations have changed.

“This is a way to get a measure of what was here before humans really started cultivating wide-scale or building cities, taking over the lake,” Biederman said.

Researchers can even extract DNA from the samples to see how they’ve changed genetically over time.

“These are invaluable to scientists, even though they were collected way in the past,” Biederman said. “Because we still have the specimens, we’re able to use that information to make a lot of scientific discoveries today."

The citizen science initiative has already attracted nearly 300 volunteers. Biederman says the database will be accessible to anyone, but the specimens themselves will remain in the classroom.