While reading our “Meet the Staff” post, you probably saw that the term “geo-referencing” came up a number of times. What does geo-referencing mean and what purpose does it serve in a museum? It’s a fair question since geo-referencing isn’t exactly an everyday activity, yet it plays an important role in the digitization of our collection.
Here’s the scenario: you’re sitting at home and hear a very loud smack. You go to see what happened, and find a bird has slammed right into your window. The bird is dead but you know a place where it can live on forever, the Museum of Biological Diversity’s Tetrapod Collection. You put the body in a freezer bag and take it over to the collection in order to donate it. This is known as salvaging and the whole process begins with that one action. If you have more questions there is a whole webpage devoted to the contribution of specimens to the Tetrapod Collection.
After our preparation lab assistants prepare a bird, it is given a label, a number, and is entered into the database. In the database we enter in the name of the collector, when it was collected, the species name, and the location. However, we can’t simply just put an address in for the location, we need to be much more thorough than that. We use latitude and longitude in order to map out points where our specimens were found. It helps build a species list of an area and maintain consistency when landmarks are removed or names are changed. In short, it reduces the uncertainty of a location.
Having a specimen with latitude and longitudinal points clears up some of the following questions: For instance, a bird crashed into your window. What side of the house did the bird hit? Was it the north side, or was it the east side? How far from the house was it? Two feet? Maybe three? Sometimes a person can’t really give us information that is too specific, but we can still work with a general location given with a specimen. We’ll simply find the area that the specimen was found so we can use varying degrees of uncertainty that depend on the specificity of the locality provided.
Geo-referencing is a common practice among scientists and research collections such as ours. Thanks to modern technology, we now have the ability to more accurately map out the presence of a particular species and assess the population’s health with more certainty. There are many times when scientific discoveries or conservation efforts rely on citizen scientists such as you making an interest in what we as a scientific institution do. Contributing a deceased specimen to a museum like ours counts as one of those times.