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From Sea Pork to Spaghetti Worms: Bringing Biodiversity Collections to the Masses - Hakai Institute

From Sea Pork to Spaghetti Worms: Bringing Biodiversity Collections to the Masses

Scientists collected and photographed thousands of underwater invertebrates around Calvert Island. Now anyone can dive into this myriad of marine life with iNaturalist.

Deep in the recesses of museums lies a natural history wonderland: countless painstakingly preserved specimens, from taxidermied birds and chunks of coral to alcohol-preserved molluscs and rows of delicately pinned insects. Until recently, few laid eyes on these creatures in their jars and drawers—biodiversity collections have historically been difficult to share en masse, as only a small fraction can be exhibited for a museum-going crowd. But accessibility is changing, thanks in part to enterprising experts, curious amateurs, and the virtual tools that can bring them together.

One of the most well-known of these tools is the global community science platform iNaturalist. Part field guide, part crowd-sourced biodiversity database, iNaturalist is a globally curated museum collection at your fingertips. It’s powered by scores of engaged naturalists and an impressive computer vision algorithm, and is many things at once—identification tool, visual guide, nature photo repository, and community builder.

Tiny invertebrates are separated out from BioBlitz samples for further identification, genetic analysis, and photographing by Hakai staff and other taxonomic experts. Photo by Grant Callegari

But the iNaturalist system is shaped by the photos and expertise its users put into it, meaning lesser-trod locations and habitats are missing—like the life found beneath the waves on the British Columbia Central Coast—as are the smaller and less traditionally charismatic marine invertebrates.

“I really wanted to find a way to share these finds; I want all the amazing photos of everything we do in BioBlitzes to be out there for the world to see,” says postdoctoral researcher Matt Whalen, who takes a lead role in the Hakai Institute’s marine biodiversity research.

Whalen is referring to the thousands of crisp, colorful portraits of organisms from three Hakai BioBlitzes on Calvert Island between 2017 and 2019. Scientists with the Hakai Institute and experts with partner organizations* found, collected, and identified as many different spineless marine creatures as possible: from flashy sea slugs to nondescript worms, they photographed every single organism they collected—a backdrop of wet black velvet is the trick—as they teased apart invertebrate taxonomy and took genetic samples destined for a global DNA library of life. Hundreds of species were recorded this way over a period of a week during each BioBlitz—an impressive chunk of the visible backbone-less life found beneath the waves in the region.

Now this life, cataloged with such care, can be explored virtually on iNaturalist. With a treasure trove of images depicting thousands of marine invertebrate specimens in hand, Hakai recently began to broadcast these findings on the community science platform, as part of a broader iNaturalist effort spearheaded by Hakai’s BioBlitz partners at the Smithsonian Marine Global Earth Observatory (MarineGEO) and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“We’ve been doing a lot of biodiversity work in recent years, and much of it ends up on databases aimed towards the scientific community solely, which then are not accessible to the public,” says Hakai scientist Matt Lemay. “iNaturalist opens up our huge collection of biodiversity data to a broader audience.”

Left: Research technician Gillian Sadlier-Brown examines a collection of sea snails in the genus Amphissa, collected during a Calvert Island BioBlitz. As with over 2,000 other specimens, the BioBlitz records of these snails are now publicly accessible on iNaturalist. Photo by Grant Callegari. Right: Bioblitz records on iNaturalist, showcasing photos taken by a collaborative team from Hakai, MarineGEO, and the Florida Museum of Natural History

Many critters from Hakai’s BioBlitzes are firsts for iNaturalist, including a species of stalked jellyfish, a pink spangly-tentacled creature that only first appeared in publication in 2010. But there was a serendipitous surprise that Whalen and Lemay didn’t quite expect: the added benefit of valuable feedback from this broader audience. 

The blast of high-quality observations appearing on the site quickly drew the attention of professional and amateur experts alike, who continue to find and apply their years of training, knowledge, and enthusiasm to these BioBlitz specimens turned iNaturalist observations. They help narrow down the identities of bristly marine worms and blob-like sponges. They wade into the taxonomic minutiae of minuscule striped shrimp. They spot the finer features—details that can differentiate one species from a look-alike—in juvenile jellies and delicate sea slugs. In this way, identifying the trickier subjects becomes a crowd-sourced group effort.

“The feedback has been cool and unexpected in a way that I didn’t quite appreciate going into this,” Whalen says. “I am getting to know these critters reasonably well, but not to the level of some of these folks. These are true experts, and it’s so neat to be able to put quality stuff up there for them to see and respond to.”

These creatures are first examined by experts at BioBlitzes and sent to interested colleagues for additional appraisal, but there are natural limitations—it’s not possible to bring every expert to a BioBlitz, nor mail out every specimen. “We ID what we can, and then we outsource the rest to experts via photos,” Lemay says. “iNat really helps with that because then we share those records with the world and they can help us refine the names that we put on things.”

Initially thought to be one species known to the BC coast, this sea slug has since been identified by experts on iNaturalist as potentially something else. It’s also something that had not previously been genetically sequenced. “The morphology can tell us when to dig deeper into something with the genetics, and vice versa,” says Hakai scientist Matt Lemay. “iNaturalist is giving us a lot more of the morphological perspective, and can help us make better sense of the genetic data.” Photo by the Hakai Institute

This feedback can inspire follow-up research. Scientists gather as many clues as they can when trying to put a name to an organism. Morphology—including shape and color, crucial components that are preserved in the portraiture—and genetics are two key pieces in this taxonomy puzzle. iNaturalist widens the scope of who can provide perspective on the morphology, which can help guide Lemay and his team as they dig into the genetic data.

Harnessing this community of knowledge also helps to home in on less obvious—but no less important—records, potentially exciting finds that may have gotten lost in the fray of collecting, processing, and managing thousands of records.

“Because of the feedback that we’re getting, we’re able to find more of these diamonds in the rough that are already in this collection of information we get from BioBlitzes,” says Whalen.

One of those diamonds is a mystery sea slug that doesn’t quite fit in its species box: based on how it looks, the closest match would make it the northernmost record of the species by over 1,000 kilometers. Based on genetics, it’s new to the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD), Hakai’s genetic library of choice. After a back-and-forth with a few nudibranch experts on iNaturalist, it’s now slated for a closer examination by Hakai’s genomics team.

“The unexpected benefit of it highlighting where to dig more into the genetics and other aspects of our biodiversity data has been wonderful,” says Lemay. “The iNaturalist community can tell us which records may be of particular interest or problematic, or could do with more research attention, because we collect more than we could ever really focus on [at the individual level]. And we’re certainly not getting that from other databases.”

“I think that’s a really cool part about using iNat, and was one of those unexpected joys that has continued to impress me and make it more fun,” Whalen agrees. “Like that nudibranch. What do we actually have here? We thought we knew, now we’re wondering, Is it something new?”

This nudibranch, along with the rest of the critters collected during Hakai’s invertebrate BioBlitzes, can now be explored via MarineGeo’s Central Coast iNaturalist Project. But this is just the beginning. Next on the docket for the iNaturalist treatment: Quadra Island’s plankton community. Follow along as we add more weird and wonderful marine life—we’re @hakaiinstitute on iNaturalist.

* These experts hailed from multiple universities, museums, and other institutions from around the world.