The Vermont Atlas of Life is a library of knowledge on Vermont’s animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms – an online, real-time resource with maps, photographs, and data open for anyone to use.
The diversity of life in Vermont is a beautiful mess. For more than two centuries, biologists, naturalists and citizens have documented and celebrated the animals, plants, and other life that together define the nature of this green state. Yet on this journey of discovery we have taken only the first few steps.
What lives here? Where is it? What’s common? What’s at risk? What will be? The answers lie scattered among books, reports, computers, museums, and even in the memories or journals of Vermonters now living or long passed. The average department store knows more about its inventory than we know about what lives in Vermont. In the information age, this is troubling.
As human activity profoundly alters the map of life on local and global scales, our response requires knowledge of plant and animal distributions across vast landscapes and over long periods of time. Vermonters cannot respond effectively to climate change, natural disasters, invasive species, and other environmental and economic threats without a new understanding of the state’s living resources. At stake is nothing less than the health of our natural world, economy, and human life itself.
The Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ solution is the Vermont Atlas of Life (VAL). VAL will become the central library of knowledge on the biodiversity of Vermont: animals, plants, and fungi. At VAL’s core are powerful computers holding every bit of data the atlas project will accumulate. But VAL will be less a computer system than a community of people contributing and using information about the changing nature of Vermont: distribution maps, photographs, and other data free of charge to anyone – from backyard naturalists to scientists to policy makers. In short, VAL is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching conservation projects Vermont has ever undertaken.
Vermonters have long upheld a tradition of documenting biodiversity. Biologists and citizen volunteers have recently completed major statewide atlases of birds, butterflies, reptiles, and amphibians. Yet these worthy efforts represent a mere fraction of the state’s natural heritage. We know of 382 bird species and 58 mammal species inhabiting Vermont; our insect diversity alone may approach 22,000 species. Although we have a common knowledge of Vermont’s critical food-crop pollinators, such as bees and other insects, there exists no reliable assessment of their distribution or population trends.
VAL will bridge critical gaps in the loose network of individuals, scientists, organizations, and governments collecting biodiversity knowledge here in Vermont and across the planet. Serving as a model for other states, VAL will link Vermont to worldwide biodiversity assessment projects. VAL’s applications are inexhaustible and the benefits are vast. By way of examples, VAL will:
- Inspire a new spirit of “bio-civics” as people serve their communities by contributing sightings to VAL, which includes a social media component for participants to share knowledge online.
- Help state forestry officials discover and track the distribution and movements of invasive pests such as Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or Emerald Ash Borer, each of which presents profound threats to Vermont forests.
- Be a reliable resource for biologists studying rare plant and wildlife species. Even in its infancy, VAL has already revealed new populations of a rare dragonfly and a rare plant.
- Kindle fascination for the natural world and interest in science and among educators and schoolchildren. Many are already using VAL to learn about biodiversity and are contributing their own discoveries to the project.
From its inception, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has been a leader in identifying and mapping Vermont’s biodiversity. Enlisting a legion of “citizen-naturalists” to support our efforts, VCE has managed groundbreaking atlas projects on breeding birds, butterflies, bumblebees, and vernal pools. Far more comprehensive, VAL will require leadership, organization, equipment, infrastructure, and staff to curate the project’s ever-growing mass of data. VAL will grow to include millions of records, becoming a legacy for Vermonters working today and those not yet born. The result will enhance life in the state by supporting scientists, taxonomists, natural resource managers, land-use planners, policy makers, elected officials, community-based groups, teachers and students, and anyone with even a passing interest in the nature of Vermont. As VAL becomes a thriving community of knowledge-seekers, VCE will serve as the community’s leadership, librarian, publicist, educator, technical support team, and maintenance department.