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Species Great And Small

— The Vermont Center for Ecostudies, a 5-year-old nonprofit, uses scientific data to help monitor populations and inspire conservation efforts in the Green Mountain State.

Thanks to its latest project, that data could be virtually unlimited.

With a platform that welcomes input from professional biologists and “citizen scientists” alike, VCE’s Vermont Atlas of Life intends to compile an inventory of every animal, vegetable and microbial species in Vermont.

VCE senior biologist Kent McFarland hopes as many Vermonters as possible will submit photos, with locations, for whichever species they come across — from mushrooms to muskrats and even microorganisms.

A featured project within the online nature lover’s website iNaturalist.org, it’s available for viewing and for anyone to add observations by visiting www.inaturalist.org/projects/vermont-atlas-of-life or through the VCE website, vtecostudies.org.

“This might seem like a strange analogy, but think of Vermont like a big-box store,” said McFarland, of Woodstock. “We want to get a list of the inventory of everything in the warehouse.”

Archived photos are welcome, with participants able to flood photos from either their hard drives or social networking accounts. The Atlas even has a keyword mechanism that attempts to label the photos accurately upon uploading.

The Vermont Atlas of Life, which launched Jan. 1, has already gathered more than 4,500 submissions chronicling more than 1,300 species. The list of discoveries thus far includes more than 500 insects, nearly 400 bird species and about 650 plants.

While plenty of common species have surfaced, rarities have come to light as a result of the project.

“Someone in Rutland County sent in a picture of a plant (a dragon’s mouth orchid) that’s endangered and hadn’t been observed in Vermont since 1988,” McFarland said. “We also had a woman who’d hit a dragonfly with her car and felt so bad ,she brought it home. It died, but she took a picture and sent it to us.

“It turns out it was a spatterdock darner, which is very rare in this part of the country. There are probably only a couple of them in the state.”

Most submissions, once registered on the site, include a link to a map displaying the location it was found. For their protection, exact locations for endangered species — such as the dragon’s mouth and other orchids — aren’t provided.

“Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people who collect rare plants and animals to sell on the black market,” McFarland said. “Orchids are highly sought after. Rattlesnakes are another huge one for collectors. We’re actually working on (implementing) something that automatically obscures the location of endangered species when they’re uploaded, so we don’t have to monitor it so closely.”

While McFarland concedes that it could take decades to find every last species in the state, he believes the data could be very valuable for future scientists inquiring about population trends. Today’s biologists and ecologists have a difficult time gathering species-population data from previous eras, he noted.

“(Plainfield, Vt. ecologist) Charlie Cogbill wanted to know what our forests looked like when Europeans first arrived in the colonies, but there was very little data collected in the 1700s,” McFarland said. “He went to every town hall in the state and went through town records of the first surveyors to find ‘witness trees’ that marked survey lines. Through what I consider heroic data derived from those type of records, he was able to put together maps and statistics of what our forests looked like back then.

“So if you look at what we’re doing now, we could have a data base of tree species that people could be looking at 75-100 years from now. Even 20 years from now, this type of data could be really helpful. Because of climate change, there are going to be significant changes and it will be important to have a database.”

While documenting as many plants, birds and mammals as possible is the main focus of the Vermont Atlas of Life project, McFarland is welcoming submissions, even of the single-cell variety. While recording every last genus would be impractical, if not impossible, organisms detected under a microscope won’t be excluded.

“You could get a handful of soil from your garden and end up with thousands of those species, so we’re not expecting people to do that,” McFarland said. “But there are microscopic invertebrates that are helpful to know about, such as different kinds of snowfleas and waterbears.”

McFarland hopes eventually to produce a “Tree of Life” diagram with a categorical breakdown of every living species in Vermont. If the early popularity of the Atlas for Vermont Life is any indication, it won’t be long before there are enough species confirmed to create one.

“We’re glad it’s catching on because it’s an excellent platform for discovery and to get people talking about what they find,” McFarland said. “Species are always going to be in flux, but the more we know, the better.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.


This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Jan. 27 edition of the Sunday Valley News.

Vermont Center for Ecostudies is a 5-year-old nonprofit organization that is compiling an inventory of Vermont’s animal, vegetable and microbial species called the Vermont Atlas of Life. The name and age of the organization and the title of the project were incorrect in a story in yesterday’s Valley News.