Recording the Island’s biodiversity – Martha's Vineyard Times

Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life can foster youth interest in the Island’s wilds.
BiodiversityWorks launched a new website called the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life, where Islanders can record the biodiversity that exists on the Island. This project was launched with support from the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation. Claire Callagy, the foundation’s philanthropic program manager, said the foundation made a three-year commitment to help launch this project. 
According to a press release, the “community science platform is a unique effort to bring together collective natural history knowledge, past and present, to create a living catalog of the Island’s biodiversity and build an active community working to conserve its rare species, distinctive natural communities, and productive habitats.” This project was initially inspired by the 2008 book “Island Life: A Catalog of the Biodiversity on and Around Martha’s Vineyard,” written by Allen R. Keith, a Chilmark naturalist, and Stephen A. Spongberg, a botanist and former director of Polly Hill Arboretum. The book compiled “most of the existing records of wildlife and plants found on Martha’s Vineyard and in surrounding waters.”
“‘Island Life’ is a reference text for many conservation professionals, teachers, and local naturalists. It’s a valuable resource, but species lists in books go out of date almost as soon as the book is published,” BiodiversityWorks founder and director Luanne Johnson said. “I hope the MVAL website will be a collaborative science hub for years to come, providing our community with the most up-to-date species records for the Island.”
Alongside a current record of the Island’s various fauna and flora, the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life also provides tidbits of context regarding each submission, and connects people to local experts. The website promotes “local conservation efforts, community science, and hands-on interaction with the nature around us.”
“The Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life is both a scientific project — compiling and maintaining the best information we can on the Island’s biodiversity — and a social one — seeking to inspire and support the study and appreciation of that diversity. The study of natural history is endlessly rewarding, and once you’re engaged in it, you inevitably want to protect what you’re learning about,” Matt Pelikan, the director of the project, said. “We think these goals are compatible with each other, even complementary, as long as you keep the strengths and limitations of each approach in mind.”
Regarding that desire to protect, Pelikan “hopes and believes” that the project will foster the interest of the Island’s youth, and help develop “the environmental leaders of tomorrow.”
“We’ve begun working with local teachers to develop classroom projects that get kids involved in surveying wildlife,” he said. 
Pelikan told The Times the platform is “user-friendly, and generally quite workable for today’s tech-savvy young people.”
“It has to be acknowledged that young people these days often have a very wide range of interests and activities to choose from, and only a certain percentage of them are going to be interested in studying natural history,” Pelikan said. “But there have always been kids who love nature from an early age, and given their sharp senses, energy, enthusiasm, and ability to spend a lot of time outdoors, they’re often very good observers. I devoutly hope they are supported in their interest by the adults in their lives.”
People can see who submitted a species observation, and how many were recorded. Pelikan is the current species observer king on the leaderboard. So far, 2,993 species of plants and animals have been observed and documented on the website, with the common Eastern bumble bee listed as the “most observed species.”
When asked, Pelikan explained the pros and cons of collecting information through professionals and through a community-driven study. Pelikan said enlisting “academic field biologists or highly skilled amateurs” would allow for sophisticated study methods, such as environmental DNA sampling or quantitative surveys. “Such studies are rigorous, but require special skills or materials, a lot of patience and discipline, the resources and commitment to curate plant or insect collections indefinitely, and, often, considerable expense,” Pelikan said. 
Community-driven studies rely on a “wide range of amateur observations to gather data,” including photographs, sighting reports, and sounds. 
“This kind of study may not be as rigorous as the first kind, but it can still generate very good results for a lot of kinds of wildlife,” Pelikan said. “It also has the advantages of being inexpensive and engaging a wide range of people who, hopefully, are or will become more committed to conservation as a result of their involvement in the study.”
Pelikan said the project implements both approaches. Community members, who are the primary gatherers of information in this project, collect data that can be verified by experts. Additionally, experts have been invited to come to Martha’s Vineyard to “poke around in particular places.” On the Island, Pelikan himself is studying bees “using photography and collecting,” while BiodiversityWorks board member Margaret Curtin and Polly Hill Arboretum research associate Greg Palermo are working with the arboretum on a “Vineyard herbarium project.” 
“I hope that in the future, we might be able to contract with academic experts for detailed surveys of taxa or sites that are too challenging for amateur observers to handle effectively,” Pelikan told The Times. 
The website also links to three other community science platforms,,, and The press release listed several ways to participate in the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life, such as reporting observations directly on the website or in the iNaturalist app, making a donation, and participating in events related to the atlas (e.g. webinars, bioblitzes, etc.). 
The Times submitted its own photograph to the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life: a juvenile mantis that was spotted in Vineyard Haven. 
“Given the small wing buds, it must have another molt or two to go before maturity. It’s a Chinese mantis, Tenodera sinensis, an introduced species that is by far the most common mantis on M.V.,” Pelikan told The Times in an email after seeing the photograph.
Now get your binoculars, grab an insect net, and start exploring.

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