As a child, did you ever spend lazy summer afternoons gazing up at the sky, imagining shapes of fluffy whales and billowy crocodiles passing by? It seems such creatures—all vertebrates, in fact—may soon settle into a permanent cloud existence. No, not the cottony white variety, but the cyber kind.
“The cloud” or “cloud computing” processes and stores information on the internet rather than on personal computers, meaning that data can be accessed from anywhere. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have devised an ecological take on the cloud’s offerings. They plan to create a composite database of all known vertebrate specimens, or animals with backbones. Combining information from hundreds of collections, including renowned facilities like the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, this database will provide a readily accessible platform for researchers and citizen scientists all over the world.
The project, termed VertNet by the Berkeley researchers, may represent the future of data sharing for biologists. The designers hope VertNet will inspire similar efforts, like a conglomerate database for plants or insects.
VertNet combines four previously existing databases: ORNIS for birds, HerpNET for reptiles and amphibians, FishNET for fishes, and MaNIS for mammals. Birdcall recordings and bird egg photos will be extra bonuses available on VertNet. When a VertNet user searches for a particular animal, simultaneous queries will be sent to online databases at 74 different institutions housing 174 separate collections. Incorporating these sources into VertNet’s cloud-based system will provide a much more robust search and also means individual collections will no longer have to worry about system crashes making their data temporarily inaccessible.
Practically speaking, tools like VertNet can be a lifesaver when it comes to on-the-ground situations that require immediate action. For example, when the 2010 oil spill erupted in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists had no easy way of accessing data about what kinds of animals might be affected, or where their populations were located. Though bird and fish collections housing that information exist around the nation, the lengthy process of stitching together these bits of data to form an overarching ecological picture of the Gulf impended scientists’ abilities to act in a timely manner.
By summer of 2012, the researchers hope to have the current vertebrate collections “mobilized” to the cloud. Institutions from Africa to Ecuador have already formed a wait list to add their own collections’ data to the system. Amateurs are encouraged to participate once VertNet goes live, too. Citizen scientists’ contributions are no joke: of the 85 million VertNet records, a whopping 75 million come from birders’ field observations, uploaded to Cornell University and Audubon’s joint eBird project. Way to go, birders!