Results so far | Orchid Observers

The Orchid Observers project is closing at the end of July (so if you can help us out with the last few classifications then you have just a few days left!). We’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the volunteers who photographed orchids, identified photos online or transcribed and classified our museum specimens. Your time, expertise and enthusiasm is really valued, so thanks for being part of the Orchid Observers team.

Photo of a bee orchid flower with thank you in a speech bubble coming from a 'mouth'-like shape on the flower.
A big thank you to everyone who has volunteered to help us with the Orchid Observers citizen science project!

The project had two main research questions:

  1. Firstly, the climate science research: Are orchid flowering times being affected by climate change?
  2. Secondly, the social science research: How do volunteers interact and share ideas and knowledge with one another, within a project that combines both outdoor and online activities?

The second question was of particular interest to our funders, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We are asking all Orchid Observers volunteers to answer a short survey to help us address the second question, so keep an eye out for that coming soon. Here I’ll update you on the science research outcomes and how we are analysing the data you’ve collected.

With your help, the photos of orchids taken in 2015 have been identified and combined with the classifications and transcriptions you made from the historical Museum specimens. This is a fantastic achievement and means that we can now start to analyse the dataset as a whole, exploring how flowering times for the 29 orchid species included in the project vary in relation to key climate variables. It is an extremely exciting stage of the project for us, as we begin to see what the data analysis will reveal!

Results at a glance

  • Over 2,000 volunteers taking part
  • More than 1,800 new observations of wild orchids
  • Around 200 new locations, where particular species of orchid hadn’t been recorded before
  • 50,948 classifications on the Orchid Observers online platform
  • Orchid photographs taken all over the UK, from the Shetland Islands in the far north, to the Isles of Scilly in the far southwest.

New locations for rare orchids

Orchid Observers volunteers photographed the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) and white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) in several previously unknown locations. These orchids are classified as ‘near threatened’ and ‘vulnerable’ to extinction in the UK respectively, so discovering new populations is really encouraging.

We look forward to working with colleagues at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) to double-check and then further explore these valuable finds! It just goes to show that even well-studied groups like orchids can still surprise us and citizen scientists can make exciting new discoveries.

Photo showing an orchid growing put of a hole in a breeze block, near a fence surrounding a car park
White helleborine, photographed in a car park by an Orchid Observers volunteer

Understanding flowering times of UK orchids

The wide geographical spread of observations is vital to the climate change research question. Geographical variation in flowering time may be expected, and a wide spread of data allows us to factor this in when analysing the results.

Digital image of the United Kingdom with yellow pins showing the location of the observed orchids
Orchids were observed and photographed all over the UK, from the far southwest and all the way up into Shetland!

We are about to start the full analysis of the data, but an initial scoping study has been completed for one species, the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio). This analysis combined the flowering time data extracted from historical Museum specimens with recent biological records from the BSBI’s database and the 2015 Orchid Observers field observations.

Initial results show that the median date of last year’s flowering was at least 10 days earlier than that shown in the Museum data (which mainly covers the years 1830 to 1970). We can also see that peak flowering time for this species advances by just over four days for every 1 degree Celsius rise in mean February to April temperature.

Image of a box plot graph
The yellow box represents flowering dates of green-winged orchids in the Museum’s collections, and the red box represents flowering dates of the same species but from the photographs taken in 2015. It shows a shift of at least 10 days in median flowering date between the two sources.

Initial indications are that different orchid species may differ significantly in their response to climate change, something that we look forward to investigating in more detail. These preliminary results should of course be treated with care, however, they are certainly very promising!

Do you know your common twayblade from your lesser twayblade?

We asked Orchid Observers volunteers to identify the photographs uploaded to the site. But we know orchids can be a tricky group to identify, and lots of people might not be familiar with the different species.

We made a handy ID guide to help, and we know some volunteers are expert botanists, but we wanted to find out how accurate the identifications were to ensure they were research quality. The great news is, the majority of them were!

We took a sub-sample of 163 images and checked whether the identification the Orchid Observers volunteers gave was correct (more than one person looked at each photo, and sometimes you agreed with one another’s identifications and sometimes you disagreed!). 19 of the 29 species of orchids have quite distinctive features, and for these the ID accuracy was close to 100% – great news!

As we anticipated, a couple of trickier species groups such as the spotted-orchids and marsh-orchids (Dactylorhiza species) and the fragrant-orchids (Gymnadenia species) presented problems as they hybridise easily, so can have features that are a blend of two different species. Even so, between 70% and 90% of identifications were correct, and for a couple, even the orchid experts couldn’t agree!

We also asked you to record the flowering stage (in bud, in flower etc). In the test sample, all of the flowering stage tags were correct across all species.

Museum collections online

The Museum is still quite new to crowdsourcing projects, so it’s great for us to get an understanding of how difficult a task we can challenge you guys with. Here you’ve proven that you’re absolutely up to the task of identifying some pretty difficult organisms and transcribing hard-to-read handwriting, so watch this space for more projects.

We are currently working with the Notes from Nature project on the Zooniverse to develop new projects to transcribe more of our Museum collections. We have over 80 million specimens in all, so there’s plenty to be getting on with!

The Museum is committed to making its collections and the information they hold more accessible, for science and environmental research, but also for everyone to enjoy. We look forward to working with you on this in future.

What happens next?

We are currently in the process of ‘getting to know’ the data that you have helped to gather and classify, including learning about any biases within the dataset. For example, there are far more observations for some species than others, something that we will need to factor into our analyses. This will be completed by the end of the summer, when our statistician Angela will begin the full data analysis.

We hope to write the results up for publication in a scientific journal early next year, and of course we’ll give regular updates here as well. Once we know how the orchids are responding to changes in our climate, we can then consider what this means in ecological and conservation terms

We will also make the data gathered through this project freely available for use by others, making best use of the data for research and conservation. Photographic records of orchids in 2015 will be shared with the BSBI and the National Biodiversity Network, and the collections data will be available on the Museum’s Data Portal where you can see all our digitised collections and their associated information.

Thanks again for your contribution to the project. With very best wishes from the Orchid Observers team.

P.S. If you did take part in Orchid Observers, there’s one last thing you can do for us. Find out more here.

The Orchid Observers Team
The Orchid Observers team. From left to right: Jade Lauren Cawthray, Jim O’Donnell (Zooniverse web developer) Lucy Robinson, Mark Spencer, John Tweddle, Kath Castillo, Chris Raper and Fred Rumsey

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