How to crowdsource an atlas for a snake, a tortoise and a lizard

Prof. Graham Alexander of Wits University, with a copy of the new Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Photo: Erna van Wyk/Wits University

Prof. Graham Alexander of Wits University, with a copy of the new Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Photo: Erna van Wyk/Wits University

There’s more than just a few snakes (and tortoises, lizards and crocodiles, for that matter) to be found among the 485 pages of the newly published Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. In fact, you will be able to use this full-colour atlas to look up the basics of every living reptile – all 421 recognised species – that you are able find in these three countries. This, in part, is thanks to the power of crowdsourcing and citizen science.

About 400 people and 14 organisations together contributed the 135 512 records that were worked with. The bulk came from museums and nature conservation agencies, as well as from private collections, academic institutions and published literature.

With a 25% increase in the number of recognised species since 1988, the editors new they would need to crowdsource the public for some major citizen science involvement. This resulted in 61 volunteer field workers assisting in 24 field surveys over three summers from 2005 to 2008 – approximately 270 days of sampling effort in total.

It also led to the establishment of the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment (SARCA) Virtual Museum (VM) where the public could submit photographic records of reptiles. A panel of 20 experts regularly logged on to identify the reptiles and organise them in a manner analogous to a museum collection of voucher specimens.

It took seven editors and 26 authors nine years to work through all of the information that was collected through the various efforts.

“This citizen science participation has resulted in people focussing on areas where not much collecting has been done in the past,” says Prof. Graham Alexander from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits University. The book was his brainchild, after he worked on the Frog Atlas. “Their efforts filled the gaps in distribution maps and identified areas that need more attention.”

The virtual museum is now managed and run by the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. To browse through it, visit this link. The virtual museum concept is now also being used for other atlases.

Prof. Alexander started thinking about the concept for a reptile atlas after working on the Frog Atlas that was hosted in the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town.  Together with one of his MSc students, herpetologist Johan Marais, he ran a snake course at Wits University to raise funds for a start-up workshop. Most of the country’s leading herpetologists subsequently attended the workshop – and the wheels were set in motion to get this massive project off the ground.

For more about the Reptile Atlas and how to purchase a copy, visit the website of the South African National Biodiversity Institute.