Last month, a Smithsonian (NMNH)-sponsored team of ichthyologists performed the first survey of the fish diversity in the Cuyuni River of Guyana. Upon their return, they needed to identify over 5,000 specimens in less than a week’s time in order to obtain an export permit. Faced with insufficient time and inadequate library resources to tackle the problem on their own, they instead posted a catalog of specimen images to Facebook and turned to their network of colleagues for help.
In less than 24 hours, this approach identified approximately 90% of the posted specimens to at least the level of genus, revealed the presence of at least two likely undescribed species, indicated two new records for Guyana and generated several loan requests. The majority of commenters held a Ph.D. in ichthyology or a related field, and hailed from a great diversity of countries including the USA, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.
By quickly tapping the collective expertise of their social network to help with the preliminary identification process, the expedition members were able to sort, pack and export the specimens to Washington DC in a timely manner. The identifications will also speed the cataloging process and help make the material available for loan and study as quickly as possible. Such crowdsourcing of identifications would not have been possible five years ago, but increased internet access across South America and the massive recent growth of social networks have made tapping the world’s collective knowledge easier than ever. Based on this experience, Facebook offers a remarkably efficient free tool that can accelerate taxonomic identification substantially.
Brian Sidlauskas, expedition leader and Research Collaborator of Dr. Richard Vari, in the National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology
*The expedition was funded by the NMNH Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield Program and the Department of Vertebrate Zoology.