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Sizing Up the Improved VertNet Portal

  Posted by Carla Cicero , 26 September 2016 · 514 views

VertNet has released the single biggest change to the data portal since we launched VertNet in 2012. We want to tell you all about ALL of the new portal goodies, but first we want to highlight the newest portal feature: traits, specifically body length and body mass.

Yes, you can now use VertNet to discover length and weight for millions of specimens. Measurements such as these are often collected by researchers in the field, digitized, and eventually mobilized to VertNet, but these data are hard to find, non-standardized, and in places where a lot of people wouldn’t know to look. We’ve taken measures to change that.

No, we didn’t add any data to VertNet, we just liberated data that were buried deep in occurrence records. So, if you have ever wondered just how small is a pygmy shrew (c’mon, we know you have!), here are some answers: adults or subadults are between 64-106 mm in length and weigh between1.8-7.35 grams.  Because these measurements are linked to individual specimens that have other data associated with them (e.g., their sex and location) we can also say that, no, pygmy shrews do not seem to be sexually dimorphic and their weight (at least) shows no discernible trend with latitude.  That took all of 5 minutes to discover utilizing the VertNet portal to find weight and length measures for Sorex hoyi.

Now that you are hip to Sorex hoyi, you might be asking yourself, “Surely, we know the weights of vertebrates already.  Aren’t there databases with these data out there already?” Yes, there are, but we know of no other resource where you can find these data for the actual specimens and all of their metadata. Most existing resources report species averages or ranges, but now we can do so much more! Now we have the means to look at trends in space and time and get a full view of the distribution of traits per species, or even across an entire clade (e.g., all tigers).

The work to extract and re-assemble trait data from VertNet is its own saga, and took a ton of work by the whole VertNet team.  We want to tell you that story, but rather than tackle it here, we encourage you to look over the new VertNet Traits Guide in our Resources section of the portal. We’ve also written a paper that details the entire adventure.  It’s a real page-turner, but it’s in review at the journal Database right now. With luck, it should be available just in time for the holiday season and would make a great gift for the data junkie in your life.

Did we mention that the portal was updated with a bunch of other upgrades?  Stuff like a “Clear All” button in the Advanced search and an arrow that will take you back to the top of your results window regardless of how many hundreds of records you’ve viewed.  We’ve also more than doubled the number Darwin Core fields you can search in specifically for content.  We’ve put up the entire list for you on our Portal Syntax page. Oh, and the Spatial Quality tab is taking a break so that we can give it a much needed update.

We’d very much like feedback on all of these changes, especially the new traits feature. We believe a feature like this opens up new horizons for biodiversity specimen-oriented data platforms. We also recognize that it changes the ways we think about data quality issues. So, whether you want to know about the smallest shrews, Rodents Of Unusual Size, or blue whales (well, ok, amphibians, reptiles, birds and fish too), we are open for business to help you get those answers.


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