Call it spottings, sightings or observations. Many of us go out in nature and notice birds, flowers, butterflies. We take photos and ID it ourselves or have it ID’d from the photo by others. We can put up the photo for admiration on many sites.
But it can be better. We could put the observations on a map. If many do so, we could together create a species distribution map. And even see how the distribution of species changes over the years.
I love this idea, and I do participate myself. I like the result of our common effort. What I do is go looking for dragonflies. Mainly around where I live, but also in other places where I happen to come and can spare some time. Yes, I have specialized myself. There is always so much to see that one has to be selective. Of course occasionally I record a butterfly, a bird or a plant. But my focus is on dragonflies.
Banded Demoiselle example
An example of our common effort would be the fine grained distribution map of the Banded Demoiselle in the Netherlands. This map is the result of over 12,000 observations from the start of this century till now (July 2012) and shows observations in just over 3,000 square kilometer blocks. It is taken from waarneming.nl (a Dutch project where people can record their observations for the Netherlands).
But the Netherlands is only a small country and it would be nice to see a map of Europe. That is harder to get by. The Dutch site from the previous map has a sister site in Belgium and an international site which is mainly used by Dutch and Belgian participants on holiday. But also some people from other countries contribute (it is available in about 20 languages).
That international site (observado.org)also produces a map for the Banded Demoiselle: It is clear that the Netherlands and Belgium are much better mapped (the rest of Europe has a total of about 750 observations of the Banded Demoiselle).
For some other countries I know where to get similar maps (with another focus). For the UK on http://data.nbn.org.uk, Germany has a similar project with European pretensions. For Denmark there is Naturbasen.
Maybe there are more maps to find. If you know one, please let me know.
A global view
There is only one (public) place I am aware of which offers a global view of species observations. That is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) where all kinds of datasets end up. The GBIF distribution map of Calopteryx splendens is below (from http://data.gbif.org/species/1427067). One obvious problem is many empty spaces. Nothing from France and Russia for example. And another big problem: On this map it looks like the Banded Demoiselle is present in Spain. That is however a mistake. Not sure how wrong data ended up in GBIF, but it certainly spoils the fun.
It is not the first time I see clearly erroneous data in GBIF: I have seen recording of the Dwarf Damselfly (Nehelennia speciosa) in the Netherlands on GBIF while that species has been extinct in the Netherlands for 100 years or so. I have traced the errors to a source where damselfly larvae have been ID’d by an institution which clearly lacked the experience (then – the recordings are from the 90’s) to see how extraordinairy such a claim is.
There is Project Noah, which does quite some advertizing now and then. The big problem is that is produces no species distribution maps, it is unclear where the
data go (if they go anywhere) and there is no systematic verification on the recordings. A fixed species list is missing, so searching for “Calopteryx splendens” will return different results then searching for “Banded Demoiselle”. It just depends on what the user entered.
Another project is iNaturalist, which is heavily connected with flickr. I could not find any information about where data go. But it can generate a species distribution map. Although, the map for Calopteryx splendens only showed four locations when I checked. This project at least works with a fixed species list and generates maps.
There is a lot more to say about such projects, and there are many such projects. But I have tried to keep it short. Some conclusions at the end.
* On a local scale it can work quite well, although that shows only in a few countries in NW Europe (and maybe in the USA). That means that there are enough participants to create a sensible species distribution map.
But I think that going local is the only way it really can work. It is necessary to have experts to check incoming observations, and global experts are almost impossible to find. Even if an ID can be verified, it is hard to know if a location makes sense. Calopteryx splendens is not present in Spain, and if someone claims so in an observation, there should be extraordinary evidence.
* Joining the maps together on a worldwide scale, isn’t working very well. GBIF is disappointing: information from most locations is missing and in some cases existing information is wrong.