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Monday, January 14, 2013

A Vermont Atlas of Every Living Thing Begins

Scientists and Citizen Naturalists Submit Sightings from Nature

Vermonters can start the new year with a resolution to join one of the most ambitious conservation projects the state has ever seen: an inventory of every living thing in Vermont.

The Atlas of Vermont Life  will collect sightings from citizen naturalists and professional biologists and present them online in the form of maps, photos, and even social networking. From mushrooms to maples, moose to microorganisms, everything counts.

"One of the most amazing things about the nature of Vermont is how little we know," said Kent McFarland, senior conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), which officially launches the project on January 1. "The atlas will generate excitement, discoveries and greater understanding of biodiversity across the state."

Anyone can submit or view Vermont biodiversity data at to the atlas project

Decades will pass before the atlas is complete; it may never actually reveal every last species. But it is expected to grow into the most comprehensive accounting of life in Vermont. It appears to be the first attempt to document each and every plant, animal and otherwise in an entire state.

VCE has a track record of enlisting citizens for science, creating atlases of bird, butterfly and bumblebee distribution across Vermont. The new on-line atlas project extends citizen discovery to everything from common plants to obscure lichens, even still undiscovered species such as microscopic animals called "waterbears" or different kinds of snow fleas.

Ultimately the atlas will generate research-grade data to help citizens and scientists discover, track and conserve Vermont's biodiversity. McFarland says Vermonters cannot fully appreciate and conserve what lives in this state without a more comprehensive inventory of life.

"Vermont needs to discover more about what's here and where it is," said McFarland. "This may seem to be an odd analogy, but we should be like big, national box-store chain with an inventory of every product in the warehouse."

The Atlas of Vermont Life web site allows participants to enter the name of species they discover, its exact location and an optional photograph. It also allows experts to corroborate or correct sightings, or even identify a photo of some unknown species.

VCE already runs an online bird inventory project called Vermont eBird and will soon launch a similar butterfly project called Vermont eButterfly. The new Atlas of Vermont Life will accept any species, rare or common, from anyone who joins its online community.

"We often hear about biologists cataloging the biodiversity living on a single tree in some far-flung tropical forest," said McFarland, "but rarely do we investigate the complete diversity here at home." 

Note: This post originally appeared on The Daily Wing and the VCE blog.  The North Branch Nature Center is also a partnering organization on the Atlas of Vermont Life.

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