Final Report to NBII, May, 2009

Web tools to identify, report,
and map invasive species

Final report for the
5-year cooperative agreement
The Polistes Foundation

John Pickering
University of Georgia, Athens

May, 2009

Euonymus alatus, Burning bush
Euonymus alatus berries
Burning bush -- an invasive species of New England
Illustration by Cheryl Reese, 2004
Updated: 15 May, 2009


Invasive species threaten our health, food supply, economy, environment, and general well-being. In 2004, following two years of initial support, the USGS-NBII and Polistes Foundation entered a 5-year cooperative agreement to develop, test, and implement the human and technical infrastructure needed to vastly improve our ability to quarantine, detect, monitor, and responsed to invasive species. The following sections describe our technology, partnership, and progress through April, 2009. They include an outline of what we plan to work toward in a pending second 5-year cooperative agreement.

The website Discover Life ( is under the legal umbrella of the Polistes Foundation, a 501-c-3 non-profit organization. Its broader mission is to assemble and share knowledge about nature in order to improve education, health, agriculture, economic development, and conservation throughout the world.

We have developed online tools to study natural history and track the biological impact of invasive species, climate change, acid rain, pollinator declines, and other large-scale ecological factors. Using these tools it is exciting and easy to participate in research to collect and share high-quality data. We invite both individuals and organizations to join us in building a network of study sites across North America.

Digital cameras, video recorders, wireless handheld devices, GPS units, on-line databases, and web tools are revolutionizing the way we collect data. Because of our partnership with NBII, Discover Life is in the forefront of developing research protocols and on-line tools for distributed networks of participants to collect, manage, map, and analyze information on the distribution, abundance, and phenology of species. Our technology enables large numbers of scientists, resource managers, students, and volunteers to work together to collect and integrate high-quality, up-to-date data at local to global scales. Once the network of study sites that we envision is fully implemented, such data will enable us to much better understand and manage natural resources.

Discover Life's research goals go hand-in-hand with a strong educational program to involve schools, other organizations, and individuals in participatory science. Our outreach program's focus is to teach people about science and the natural world by involving them in all aspects of research, from what questions to ask, to study design, to the collection and analysis of the highest-quality data possible.


Discover Life's web tools are designed for the general benefit of all levels of expertise. Teachers can design hands-on ecological research projects for the schoolyard or local park without killing specimens. Park managers can track migrations of invasive species. Scientists can map large collections of specimens and present information about taxa. Amateur naturalists can upload images and make a life list of species they find. Environmental educators can build online field guides so simple they can be used even by the youngest beginner.

Everyone can benefit in some way from a partnership with Discover Life. With our powerful integrated web tools, one can:

  • Keep a life list - store one's photographic (or video/audio) records of natural history as a personal electronic nature journal. This is a service somewhat like Flickr or Picasa web albums, but linked to species information, map data and more. One can keep thousands of photographs and other data on our site for free, and store associated information as well. To see stored photographs, go to . In total, Discover Life now manages over 200 albums for institutional and individual contibutors. These contain over 150,000 original photographs. They have at least one photograph for over 30,000 species. In addition, our partnership with CalPhotos provides our users with nightly updates of their links to photographs of over 28,000 taxa.

  • Map species - every time one enters locality information to a data record, the record is added as a point on the Global Mapper, . This works similarly to Google Earth, but our mapper is capable of mapping many more points, each of them attached to an individual record of species occurrence. The mapper displays point data from the albums and from records that are based on collected specimens and the scientific literature. Each night, we currently index over 6 million records in our albums, 100 collection and literature databases, and approximately 75 million records provided through our partnership with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

  • Monitor species locations - One can enter a species name on the Global Mapper and it will show all the points where we and our partners have records for that species - each of the points on a species map is a live link to a photograph or text record. For an example, see for a map of the honeybee Apis mellifera, a species introduced to the Americas by early colonists. This map demonstrates the integration of data from numerous sources: GBIF, institutions' collection records, the primary scientific literature, and individuals' photographic albums. Clicking on the image zooms in from the satellite images to more detailed maps and, at the finest resolutions for the United States, aerial photograph. Clicking on each individual point shows the basis of its record, including associated photographs.

    In building these maps, our system employs automatic error checking and correcting mechanisms to improve the accuracy of displayed distributions. We have successfully tested the mapper with large datasets. It has built interactive maps with over 3 million points, plotting them at over 22,000 per second.

    The mapper's interactive menu allows web users to build customized maps of multiple taxa at different locations and resolutions. It plots them in an array of different colors, symbols and sizes. To better understand species interactions and associations, for example, users can overlay a taxon's distribution on its potential hosts' distributions.

    We also employ automated report generating programs that analyze the mapper's underlying databases. For example, the system automatically updates each night tables and maps to show the results for the Lost Ladybug Project, a study funded by the National Science Foundation of the distribution and abundance of invasive and native species.

  • Learn about species - Discover Life is an online encyclopedia of life, with over 1.2 million species pages, many with photos, text, and links to other sites. One can access this information via the search box on the home page (, by browsing through "All Living Things" (, or if one is unsure of the identification, using our IDnature Guides (see below).

    Our species pages integrate on-site information with off-site information pulled in on-the-fly into a "mash-up". For example, see the species page for red maple, Acer rubrum, at . Note that this page includes information from the USDA Plants Database, Forest Service, CalPhotos, and several university sites that is pulled in with HTTP requests to these sites as this page is displayed.

    Secure web forms and upload procedures enable contributors to manage Discover Life's scientific names, authorities, link to higher taxa and the tree of life, common names and synonyms, dynamic maps, identification guides and checklists, images, and text. The cooperative agreement enabled Discover Life to provide general technical support and training to its contributors.

  • Identify species - use our IDnature Guides to identify bees, ants, caterpillars, butterflies, ladybugs, trees, birds, invasive species, among many other groups. Many of our 500 online guides and checklists are under construction, but some are quite complete. For example, thanks to Sam Droege and his colleagues, we have a comprehensive set of identification guides to over 1,200 eastern North American bee species

    Or see our popular, simple guide to over 150 common caterpillars

    The world bees compiled by John Ascher at the American Museum of Natural History and an international team of his colleagues is an example of a well-used, authorative checklist of valid names and synonyms. This checklist, , contains over 19,000 species. It is one of many projects that the NBII-Polistes partnership has helped over the past 5-years with its web services, technical training, and support.

    For a complete list of the 500 guides and checklists see . The table at the end of this document gives details of the guides that are most relevant to the NBII-Polistes Foundation's partnership.

  • Customize your own field guide - use our technology to create a field guide to one's local schoolyard, national park, even one's own back yard. With our guide-building tools one can build simple local guides to plants, insects, fungi, or other group of interested. See
    for a simple guide to 26 tree species that was created by students at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia, or http:///20/q?guide=Leaves for an even simpler guide to 17 kinds of schoolyard leaves created for 2nd graders at Gaines Elemenatry School by Rebecca Walcott, an undergraduate at the University of Georgia.

  • For scientists, we provide further services. We create labels with unique identifiers for specimens. We also plan to start an electronic journal, the Proceedings of Life, that among other functions will translate unstructured printed literature such as catalogs into efficient, integrated electronic databases.


Discover Life provides tools to monitor large amounts of natural history data, over large areas, over any period of time. It uses server-side technology to gather and share information over the web. Its software is licensed from the Polistes Corporation at no cost and provides the power behind the IDnature guides, Global Mapper, Albums, and other databasing tools. These are shared at no cost to data providers and end users via the web.

A key feature of this technology is the integration across tools. For example, we enable individuals to upload digital photographs to their albums, document when and where each image was taken, and manage other associated data. Our IDnature guides, drop-down checklists, and type-ahead features permit contributors and experts to add taxonomic names to the photographic records. Once identified and graded for quality, photographs automatically display on species pages and in distribution maps.

Discover Life's web services can be called by other websites through HTTP requests. Other sites can use such links free of charge without seeking prior approval. For details of how to use the tools on one's site, please see our extensive 'Help' -- -- particularly the section on 'Web services'.

Although much of Discover Life's tools and content are not public domain, the cooperative agreement between NBII and the Polistes Foundation specifies that if Polistes can no longer serve as the legal umbrella of Discover Life, then the site will be legally transferred to a government agency or another non-profit organization. This assures that websites, organizations, and other end users of Discover Life's tools and content can rely on their availability and stability into the foreseeable future.

Content providers to Discover Life contribute information under the understanding that they retain full copyright with all rights reserved, if they so wish. Discover Life does not distribute entire databases to end users without the permission of the provider. Individuals wishing to use entire datasets should contact the data provider directly, or in the case of datasets that we forward to GBIF, should work under the 'Terms of Use' specified on the GBIF site. In general, end users should follow the copyright statement under each image, many of which use our default: . However, if no copyright statement if presented, end users should check with the contributor and not assume that an image or other content is in the public domain.


Over 60 individual members of Discover Life's International Center for Public Health and Environmental Research (PHER, see and 100 organizations, such as the American Museum of Natural History, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and ASEANET, have generously provided content and expertise to support the site. For a full list of partner organizations please see We are most grateful to these individuals and organizations and thank them profusely for their contributions.

NBII-Polistes Partnership

Since 2002, the U. S. Geological Survey's National Biological Information Structure (NBII) has been the major financial supporter of The Polistes Foundation and its partners to integrate natural history data and build web-based identification guides to North America's flora and fauna. As described in our proposals (see, this partnership started by developing guides to common North American butterflies, caterpillars, wildflowers, and invasive species. In May, 2004, the NBII and Polistes Foundation signed a 5-year cooperative agreement to use web tools to identify, report, and map invasive species in North America. In 2009, we will enter into a second 5-year agreement to continue this work.


By any metric, our first 5-year cooperative agreement has been very successful. Discover Life is most grateful and thanks NBII for their support. It has enabled us to grow and serve the web community in many ways.


Discover Life's servers at the University of Georgia and Missouri Botanical Garden have served over 424 million pages and images since inception. During the course of the cooperative agreement, usage increased considerably. The following table presents monthly usage in each April from 2004 - 2009 and the cumulative number of hits. 'Monthly users' represents the number of unique IP addresses accessing the servers.


Database growth

Because of advances in technology that allow us to incorporate information from contributors, our databases are growing rapidly in both size and number. In April, 2005, when we added a new search box to Discover Life, we had information on 97,000 species. Six months later, our databases had information on nearly 224,000 species. We currently have valid names of over 1.2 million species.

Highlights in database growth include a partnership with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) to index and map 75+ million records. In addition, we index over 100 map and 200 image databases each night into our Global Mapper, search box, and taxon pages. These databases range in size from over 3 million records from Missouri Botanical Garden's Tropicos database to a few hundred snake records provided by Andrew Durso, an undergraduate at the University of Georgia.

While our import tools support standards such as Darwin Core, they do not require providers to follow any particular format. We are extremely flexible and use a large number of translators to reformat non-standard data so that they can be imported and integrated with data from multiple sources.


In 2008, Discover Life started to support videos with the help of Dick Walton's Natural History Services. In 2009, we produced over 20 student videos (see ) some of which concern invasive species. While these videos contain some factual errors, we present them here as part of our vision of where technology is headed in support of our mission. For examples of the best student videos, please be entertained and see

Later this year, we plan to add support for contributors to upload and manage audio files on Discover Life.

Guide development

We build checklists and turn them into guides through the following steps detailed in our 2005 proposal ( ):

  1. create a checklist of valid scientific names;
  2. assemble species pages that include images, maps, text and links to other websites;
  3. make a guide by scoring character-state attributes of each species;
  4. resolve the guide to make sure that it contains sufficient information to identify species;
  5. illustrate character-states, and
  6. include feedback from users.

We are first targeting the groups listed in the first column of the table at the end of this document. For each group our goal is to build a checklist and guide for all North American species. Clicking on the blue links in this column takes you to either a checklist or guide, depending on how far we have progressed with the group. Please see our 2005 proposal, for a detailed explanation of each column ( ). As work continues, we will update the numbers in this table. Please see individual guides and checklists to get the most up-to-date figures on our progress.

Future plans -- science education and a network of study sites

Understanding and managing the impact of invasive species, weather, fire, pollution, and other environmental changes on biological systems is a mammoth task. It is impossible to conduct randomized, replicated experiments to study the impact of droughts, heat waves, and other massive perturbations on the abundance and distribution of populations between and within ecological communities. Fortunately, because of continuing advances in technology and statistics, it is becoming evermore feasible to collect and integrate information from a large number of study sites, tease out the response of populations to natural events, and gain understanding into their environmental requirements and interactions.

We have started developing and supporting outreach projects with research protocols that use digital camera and other means to collect high-quality data on the distribution, abundance, phenology, and species interactions of organisms. These project's include Bee Hunt, , and the Lost Ladybug Project, , the latter funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation through Cornell University. Our dream is to develop these and similar educational projects into a large network of study sites.

Discover Life's research center (PHER) and its partners are establishing teams of scientists, students, and volunteers to study the impact of invasive species, weather, and other factors on a diverse array of species. These teams will use on-line databases and a set of standard research protocols to gather and share information from a potential vast array of study sites around the globe. We propose to start a large-scale, long-term scientific study in North America.

Our big-picture dream regarding invasive species is to provide everyone with the technology they need to identify, report, and help monitor the distribution and movement of species worldwide. Our first objective is to build identification guides to the flora and fauna of North America so that the general public can help find and accurately identify target species. Our second objective is to assemble, manage, and distribute data and web tools that will help scientists, land managers, and students and other participants to rapidly detect and respond to invasive species.

We are integrating technology to overcome the two major hurdles that greatly impeded participants from contributing to the study and management of biological diversity. Many schools and volunteer organizations could help detect and manage invasive species, for example, simply by studying nature in their local communities and reporting what they find. However, most cannot contribute valuable data. They lack the ability to identify target species reliably and cannot easily share their findings with others in a timely manner. We need identification guides that can be successfully used by non-experts. We also need database tools that empower everyone to contribute information and view maps that filter data by source and reliability.

We envision that videos and cell phones will play key roles in building our society's capacity to monitor and manage invasive species. In this regard, Discover Life has started to use videos to educate people about the importance of invasive species and how to study them. We also plan to move our content and tools to smart phones via . Ultimately, we hope to provide cell phone users with the ability to identify species, upload images and videos with accurate information of when and where they observed them from built-in GPS units, and download up-to-date maps and other timely information for management purposes.

IDnature guides for North America
Group Species Kinds Illustrations
North America

(for year)
Drawn Photo None
Ants 740 + 20% unknown751 ('05)834> 700 475679
Bees 4,5001,252 funded by USGS-BRD1,252104 70121958
>24,00024,094 funded by NSF
448 0645
Birds 9951,079 1,200 ('04)1,75217 810198
Butterflies 773773 >600 ('02)773773 94050
Caterpillars 15,000165 150 ('02)160129 0230
Damselflies 128 + unknown134

checklist only

Dragonflies 311319
316203 2006
Earthworms 150 + unknown118 ('05)118118 0
Ferns 1,100471
150checklist only

Fish >900 freshwater28,666 world ('05)
by family 0
Flies >20,00019,674
checklist only

Fungi 5,000221
23466 0072
Frogs & Toads 98107 102 ('04)1040 380107
Grasses 3,100615
616checklist only

Invasives species >1,0611,364 >350 ('02,'06)1,103200 5030133
Liverworts 500614
613193 06254
Lizards 150 +165
Mammals 455499
468201 100402
Millipedes >90091

checklist only

Mosquitoes 165 + unknown167
16744 82048
Moths >14,00010,808 ('05)0
checklist only

Opuntia Cacti 30179 ('05)1900 140
Salamanders 154164 70 ('04)17051 29074
Sawflies 1,0001,744 ('05)
checklist only

Snakes 137147 300 ('04)16446 420107
Spiders 550 genera23 ('05)25
Ticks 177 + unknown181
712193 60034
Turtles 5764 50 ('04)718 40093
Trees 6,2001,417 common trees; important shrubs ('04)1,2750 1036118
Wildflowers 17,8002,935 >600 ('02,'06)2,786>1,000 4511186

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