Shutter bugs snapping high-quality photos of insects can act as citizen scientists when they upload their pics to photo sharing websites.

A paper in the journal ZooKeys detailed what data a citizen scientist needs to include to make their photos valuable to naturalists. The most valuable photos include three factors:

  • shooting date

  • shooting site data, including latitude and longitude

  • details needed to identify the specimen to species level

Other useful information that photographers can collect includes altitude, habitat and host plant. Some photo sharing websites’ designs help wildlife photographers contribute to science.

For example, Spanish-language Biodiversidad Virtual requires photographers to document shooting date and locality. The data from uploaded photos then contributes to a website database that naturalists can access and analyze. People who don’t speak Spanish may have difficulty navigating the site. Click on “Galerias” to get to image galleries where users can open an account, upload and browse images. Once into the data input section, many scientific terms translate easily into English, since their basic roots are Latin or Greek.

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Scientists have used well-documented insect images to monitor species distribution with far less cost than a field survey. For example, uploaded photographs documented two of the seven known habitats for an assassin bug, Vibertiola cinerea, around the Mediterranean.

Photographs of another insect, Spilostethus furcula,documented that the bug may be spreading into northern Spain, where conditions used to be inhospitable to the insect. The ZooKeys paper’s authors suggested this may be a result of climate change.

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Even photos without accurate date and location labels can be helpful to illustrate online field guides and encyclopedias, such as the BugGuide, Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, Encyclopedia of Life and WikiSpecies.

I add that journalists also benefit from large catalogs of animal and plant images with reliable species identifications. Having an image to accompany an article is worth 1000 words.

IMAGE: Vibertiola cinerea (ZooKeys, Wikimedia Commons)