The dangers of using Google Earth/Maps to georeference

Bombus vagans, beautifully captured by J. C. Lucier.

My colleague ran into an interesting problem while georeferencing our bumble bees yesterday. It was a nice lesson for our lab group, so I thought I’d post the story here for everyone…

We’re in the process of affixing unique identifiers to all of our bee specimens, and we’re capturing the information from their labels: where and when they were collected and by whom. These metadata are typed into a spreadsheet that we eventually import into our database. The verbatim data are then queued to be georeferenced (i.e., figuring out the latitude and longitude for each locality), either manually or by using some informatics trickery to be described later. My colleague needs the Bombus data ASAP for an interesting and timely niche modeling study, so she’s carefully poring over several georeferencing resources, like Google Earth, gazetteers, etc. to predict lat and longs for these specimens. She ran into a Bombus vagans individual with this collecting event label:

USA: North Carolina



JC Crawford

Easy. We’ll just go to Google Maps, search for Judson, NC, grab the lat and long (35.002335, -78.80888), and be done with it. Next specimen… right? Well, Bombus vagans, also known as the wandering bumble bee, is largely a boreal species (see also the specimens in GBIF). Finding a specimen in the coastal plain habitat near Fayetteville, NC seemed unlikely—or maybe this bee was living up to its common name! A bit of detective work revealed that J. C. Crawford collected several other bees in the mountains of western North Carolina five days later (24.VII.1923) and that this collector’s typical hunting grounds in 1922 and 1923 were exclusively in the mountains near Bryson City. Hmmm… Diving deeper into the mystery my colleague found that there was a second Judson, NC in the 1920s, located just downriver from Bryson City on the Little Tennessee. It disappeared in the 1940s after being flooded by Fontana Lake (which resulted from the Fontana Dam). Ah ha!

Next step: look up some old maps of Swain County and estimate the lat and long for the old town of Judson: 35.40355, -83.561347 (with a generous error of 1000 meters). If we really wanted to be precise we’d try to find better maps from the 1920s-1940s, but this first pass will get my colleague going on her niche modeling analysis.

So, what did my lab group learn? 1) it pays to know the natural history of the species you’re georeferencing, 2) precise collection dates and collectors’ names are useful, 3) we can’t employ a single tool to predict latitude and longitude, no matter how user-friendly Google Earth is(!), 4) we’re better off georeferencing our specimens at the time of collection, rather than after-the-fact, 5) we need to document how we determined the lat / long and make sure this information is added to the database, especially when detective work was required, 6) natural history collections are vital sources of irreplaceable information. What if we wanted to sample bees in Judson, NC today? Perhaps there are some aquatic species we could sample using fish nets and SCUBA gear?

Formalizing and extending the North Carolina Insect of the Week

You may notice that today’s Insect of the Week post looks a little bit different, with its embedded Google Map of NCSU specimens, its more regimented categories and embedded images, etc. What’s going on? Well, Matt Yoder, a researcher in the Museum, has been rewriting certain aspects of the database software we use for digitizing specimens (mx) in order to enable Web-published species pages that directly incorporate NCSU specimens. This functionality isn’t new, mind you, as we’ve already used previous variations to publish species descriptions to the Web (e.g., this page for Alobevania tavaresi). What is new is the ability to plug the content into just about any other Web resource using the generated iframe. Next up: XML mark-up that enables the Encyclopedia of Life to scoop our content for their species pages (hence the more formalized sections of this post – Diagnosis, Natural History, etc.)

The North Carolina Insect of the Week series will roll on, showing up here on Fridays, as usual. Future pages will also be indexed on a new and improved Insect Museum database site. We’re very excited!

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