Whether it's a skier contemplating the serenity of the winter woods or an amateur photographer taking snapshots, Vermont is a state crammed with wildlife lovers.
A new project by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in Norwich hopes to capitalize on that enthusiasm. It's called the Atlas of Vermont Life.
"It's like the Facebook of organisms. You can put something on there you don't know what it is and you'll get into a mini-conversation with a naturalist, maybe two towns over that has seen that and knows what it is," explained Kent McFarland, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.
McFarland says recent efforts to document birds, bees and butterflies online led to this latest effort.
"It didn't take much of a leap to go from a few species, a few organisms, to saying hey, we should be looking at everything," he said.
The idea is to collect sightings from citizen naturalists to professional biologists. Anything goes-- from a picture of a Red Fox at Chimney Point to snow geese at Dead Creek or even black bear scat in Pittsford.
"You hear about them running off to the tropics and discovering amazing new species, but really right here in our own woods of the Green Mountain State, we don't know how many species there are. We've got guesses of something like 24,000, 25,000, but we don't know exactly how many there are," McFarland said.
On a walk in the woods, McFarland grabs his iPhone and puts the Atlas app to work.
While there will inevitably be duplication and what may seem to be run-of-the mill species, McFarland says that ultimately the Atlas will generate research-grade data.
"Sometimes we don't know what's going to be common in the future. So, what might be really of dirt common like a chickadee now, I mean there could be a disease 15 years from now that hits chickadees and we're going to be kicking ourselves we didn't know more about what chickadees liked. So, we say bring it on. Bring us all the data you can," McFarland said.
The Atlas also allows experts to corroborate or correct sightings.
"What that allows us to do is use crowdsourcing to actually help identify the species. And the more people that agree with you on it, the more reliable the sighting is and it jumps up a level. This sighting now is called research grade data quality," McFarland explained.
And like life itself, the Atlas has no end point.
"It'll go on and on and on cause we'll never, ever know where everything is in Vermont, but what's here and where it is. We're striving for that. We're striving to understand what's here and where it is," McFarland said.
A hands-on effort to catalog the biodiversity in our own backyard.
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