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Citizen scientists can document the natural world

At the start of the 21st century, it may come as a surprise that we still have not catalogued the detailed anatomy or traits of most plants, animals and microbes whether they are living or fossil species. That we lack much of this basic information – how species’ cells are constructed, what their physiology is like, the details of their bones, muscles or leaves – may be remarkable given that the study of comparative “morphology” (sometimes called “phenomics”) has been underway for centuries.

Biologists and paleontologists do generate and publish new observations and analyses of morphology – every day – particularly as spreadsheets of detailed anatomical observations (called “matrices”). In these matrices, scientists compare different species for several morphological characteristics. By identifying similarities and differences among them, species can be placed in the Tree of Life. Nonetheless, with over 10 million living and fossil species to be described, the job is a big one. The newly created data is only beginning to be integrated into public databases like MorphoBank (a web application and database that allows users to build matrices linked to comparative morphological data) supported by the National Science Foundation. In any field, be it law, genetics, astrophysics, or biology and paleontology, having information in databases, is essential if investigators are to ask and answer complex questions. Evolutionary scientists use the Tree of Life, produced by the interpretation of data in matrices, to understand how many species exist and how they are related. This research allows us to understand nature’s history and present state, so that we may make better decisions about conservation.

Screenshot of The Evolution Project indicating the interface for the scoring of characters by citizen scientists. This information is drawn from a different web application, MorphoBank, that is used by scientists. Image provided by Dr. Arce H.

Given that there are far more species to be described and studied than there are trained scientists, can we involve non-specialists or citizen scientists to help collect this data? If we show anatomical traits (such as a type of wing or a bump on a skull) to a non-scientist in a labeled picture, can that person then record whether a different species does or does not have the trait? In other words, can we crowdsource the collection of anatomical data for evolutionary research? For the experiment, we built a new piece of software for the public called The Evolution Project, currently hosted at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The images and information were drawn from MorphoBank, and were presented to the public. The public is invited to try this for bats, shrimp, plants, diatoms, catfishes or sea anemones and can do so on the The Evolution Project.

Dr. Arce H. with two children broadcasting the Evolution Project during a member’s night event at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Image provided by Dr. Arce H.

In a controlled experiment, we found that over 80% of the time citizen scientists could reach the same decision as a scientist if shown a labeled picture of the trait and asked a very constrained identification question. This is an extremely encouraging result, particularly as we also show that the success rate goes up if scientists can separate the harder identifications from the easier ones, keeping the former for themselves.

Currently the Evolution Project as sustained by the Academy of Natural Sciences will be used as an educational tool to expose non-scientists to the concepts of evolution through a hands-on interactive experience.  The project provides the user with an understanding of what a morphological character is, how to score it and how to build phylogenetic matrices.

Despite these encouraging results, it is currently very time-consuming for scientists to set up the initial bank of images to which new species can be compared. Finding ways to automate this process with robotics or artificial intelligence may open the door to much greater organization of images.  Such progress would allow future scientists to move the Evolution Project from its educational role to a role where new scientific data are being generated by non-scientists. Innovation of this kind would help get us to a place where we can say that we know the morphological details of life on Earth.

Featured image by ThomasWolter, CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

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