Researchers launch social networking website for cataloging reptile species

With ease comparable to that of uploading a Facebook photo, social media users can now contribute to the conservation of endangered reptile and amphibian species worldwide.

UC Berkeley and Stanford University researchers last week helped launch the Global Reptile BioBlitz, a social networking site where anyone around the world can upload photos of reptiles for experts to identify and study. The reptile site rides the success of its sister project, Global Amphibian BioBlitz, which allows for amphibian tracking.

Users have already uploaded photos of 361 reptile species to iNaturalist.org, the Bay Area social network for naturalists that hosts the BioBlitz projects. The amphibian version has catalogued 721 species since its May 25 launch. Of these, more than 150 species — found in 55 far-flung countries — are classified as threatened.

The depth of the project came as a surprise for the coordinators, said Scott Loarie, co-director of iNaturalist.org and a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science. At the start of the amphibian BioBlitz, Loarie had expected the submissions to be mostly common amphibians.

Since then, however, users of the site have “checked in” many rare and threatened species, he said. Some amphibian enthusiasts have found species thought to be extinct, such as the Costa Rican golden toad, which had not been seen in more than 20 years.

“Many cases don’t even have museum records,” Loarie said.

But with so many rare species being logged, project coordinators have had to balance the freedom of the Internet with the responsibility of handling discoveries of rare species in a proper scientific manner.

One concern the researchers have for the reptile BioBlitz stems from what Loarie described as a “fine line between the conservation community and the dubious collector community.” This issue could be more important for the reptile project because of greater public interest in the world’s approximately 9,500 reptile species, he said.

The project’s coordinators have tried to solve this problem by automatically obscuring the exact location of endangered amphibians and reptiles.

With the exchange between the public and the scientific community, there is an amazing amount of potential for collaboration, according to Vance Vredenburg, assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State University and co-founder of AmphibiaWeb.

“People are uncovering salamanders that haven’t been seen since 1960 in Mexico,” Vredenburg said. “There are so many more eyes on the ground than I could ever have time for. People are going to discover new things all over the world.”

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