Bell Museum launches Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas

The online collection is accessible to the public for research and everday use.

David Clarey

A new online portal housing information on the world’s most peculiar flora and fauna may satisfy the curiosity of nature enthusiasts.
This month, the Bell Museum launched the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas — the culmination of a multiyear project to expand the accessibility of the museum’s records.
The Bell Museum’s collection contains more than 750,000 specimens, 
including 16,000 unique species. The new online atlas includes 400,000 specimen records from around the world. Funded by an award from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the portal took three years to compile.
“This can be used to document and understand change. We have records that represent places from Minnesota that have changed dramatically,” said George Weiblen, scientific director and curator of plants at the Bell Museum.
In the past, the museum’s collections were available only by request, Weiblen said. 
For Keith Barker, 
curator of genetic resources and interim curator of birds at the Bell Museum, the online atlas will stimulate inquisitiveness and hopefully help researchers formulate new questions about biodiversity. 
“Mostly, it’s a matter of access. Secondarily, it’s also a matter of integrating data so we can ask different kinds of questions,” Barker said 
The Bell Museum’s records contain geographic information of where specimens were collected and ocassionally include images. 
For the Midwest, the online collection is relatively unique because of its expansiveness, Barker said. The portal bridges five terabytes of the museum’s botanical and zoological data.
“Before now, you had never seen plants and animals and fungi, lichens, all in one place,” Barker said. 
This August, the museum plans to make the atlas available through a crowdsourcing website called Zooniverse, Barker said. The website enlists volunteer scientists to help transcribe and verify the collection’s vast array of data and historical records.
However, the process of creating the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas hasn’t been without challenges, Weiblen said. One such complication came when building the online portal’s content. Some collections named species differently than others.
Collectively, the museum’s curators decided to limit the geographical information of endangered species to the county in which they were found.
Katie Noren, a University graduate who has been working with the Bell Museum’s plant collection for more than a year, said the previous databases lacked images and was inaccessible. As part of the museum’s new effort, her team has uploaded more than 65,000 records of plants.
 “For me, it’s mostly to get it out there, to get the information out so people know it’s available,” Noren said. “It’s available for them to look at and get interested in and get excited about.”