The Natural History Museum in London has a rich history of engaging members of the public with volunteer efforts. In autumn 2015, the museum piloted a new volunteer program, Visiteering, which is unique because it lasts only eight hours. This ‘visiting volunteer’ experience is accessible to anyone willing to dedicate a day to learning about curatorial procedures while contributing to a citizen science project, so I was keen to get involved.
Six other participants and myself were greeted at the museum by Ali Thomas, the energetic volunteer projects coordinator. Our base for the day was the Specimen Preservation Area (SPA) within the Darwin Centre, where we met resident biologist and botanist, Kath Castillo, the Orchid Observers project officer, and life sciences volunteer, Kate Coss.
Orchid Observers is a citizen science initiative developed by the Natural History Museum which supports ongoing research concerning the impacts of climate change on plant species in the UK. Orchid phenology is a prime indicator of these trends, evidenced by recent research which has shown that orchids are blooming earlier in the year throughout Great Britain. By collecting data on the timing and location of orchid blossoming, it is possible to assess how these patterns are changing, bettering our understanding of how plants respond to a warming climate.
In addition, historical records can be used to determine where and when orchids bloomed throughout the UK over longer timescales. The Natural History Museum’s herbarium contains 15,000 orchid specimens, collected over almost 300 years. Most of the museum’s specimens include the date and location of collection and, as most were collected near the peak of flowering, these records reveal climatic trends spanning three centuries.
Our mentors guided us through a detailed explanation of the project, emphasizing the relevance of our efforts within the broader scope of climate change research. We viewed engaging visuals: images of citizen researchers hunting for orchids, maps of orchid sightings throughout the UK recorded by lay observers, and photographs of orchid sightings submitted by the public. We were also invited to handle some of the orchid specimens that would usually be stowed away in the museum herbarium.
Orchid Observers is one of many projects within the ‘Zooniverse‘, an online citizen science network. The intrepid among you may elect to search for and photograph orchids in bloom, recording the date and location in the Zooniverse database. If fieldwork isn’t your cup of tea, you can participate online by transcribing or verifying information from digitised versions of the museum’s orchid specimens, which is what we helped out with.
After creating a Zooniverse account online, a brief tutorial pop-up walks you through the transcription process. For each specimen,you must identify the specimen label and identification barcode, record the species, location, and date of collection, and identify the specimen’s flowering stage.
It quickly became apparent to us, however, that this was not mind-numbing data processing.
Identifying and recording the appropriate specimen was easy enough but those enthusiastic botanical hobbyists collecting orchid specimens in the 1800s did not always pause to consider that their specimens may become a key element in a climate change research initiative. Missing information and abbreviated or antiquated place names were common, as were some illegible scrawls, distorted by smudges and general wear. Geographical inconsistencies also cropped up; while some collectors noted location specifics, others were far vaguer in their recording, requiring a lot of map consultation on our part! Plus, official species classifications are frequently altered, so determining the correct modern name for the specimen required the cross-checking of historical and current data.
The museums is home to 620,000 documented botanical specimens, as well as hundreds of thousands of specimens waiting to be added to the official database. We saw a small fraction in the herbarium- an expansive room lined with metal cabinets, each containing folders of painstakingly-prepared specimens. Windows along one side allowed visitors in the adjacent gallery to get a view inside this otherwise hidden space.
Before getting back to work, we visited a separate lab filled with large antique plant presses, pots of glue and assorted plant mouthing tools. Here, an herbarium technician demonstrated to us how to repair damaged specimens.
The Orchid Observers project aims to generate public interest in conservation, whether you’re an amateur photographer recording orchid sightings in your back garden or a climate change scientist engaged in university research. Best of all, it’s not just for the UK- the Zooniverse is a global network of crowdsourced research efforts, so people all over the world can seek out projects and get involved.
What’s not to like? Get googling!
Erin Frick is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
You can find out more on Orchid Observers at www.orchidobservers.org and visit the Natural History Museums website, www.nhm.ac.uk, for more opportunities to get involved in their volunteering program.