Habitat, Habitat, Habitat: Using Google Street View for scientific documentation

The old adage about the value of properties depending on “location, location, location” translates to non-humans as “habitat, habitat, habitat”. When we biodiversity scientists go out into to the world studying obscure species, one of the first things we want to learn is “what habitat does it live in?”. Our search for Pellenes logunovi focused on finding the right habitat.¬† When we finally find a species, we want to document its habitat, so that others may find it again later, and also to begin the long process of understanding its ecology. We can write simple descriptions like “on rock”, but better is to include photographs and other data. My brother religiously photographs the habitats in which he collects beetles, and I’m starting to follow his lead.

Now, to document a habitat (as place and time), scientists can use a wonderful new photographic tool: 360 degree photographs in Google Street View. Here’s one at the spot where we found the nearly-mythical Pellenes pulcher. You can see details of the microhabitat (the little rocks on the ground) and macrohabitat (Nanophyton steppe along the shores of Uvs Nuur). When you contribute a 360 degree view to Google Street View, it’s as if you’ve given the viewer a little time and space machine to take them to the exact spot and time where you found an interesting species.

Not exactly a street, but a Street View: habitat of Pellenes pulcher at Uvs Nuur, Tuva.

The value of 360 Street Views for scientific documentation would be considerably increased by two “minor” enhancements. The first would be to have some way to attach a searchable comment: my notes about what was found there, a collecting code to link to my databases, etc. I can’t figure out any way to attach a comment. The second would be to have some assurance that the view would remain accessible on Google Maps for at least 10 years or so. That assurance, of course, seems unlikely.

Even still, I’m glad to have the ability to post Street Views of a habitat, even limited as they are for now. To have them listed in one public place, here are some of our spider hunting locations in southern Siberia. The codes like WPM#18-009 are my standard codes referring to a collecting place and time (which I have been using since 1975!).

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