University of Michigan researchers will enlist the help of community scientists in a new project to digitize thousands of historical records – some dating back more than a century – about Michigan inland lake conditions and fish abundances.

Scientists will feed the digitized data into computer models to study the impacts of climate change and other factors on the fish in Michigan’s inland lakes.

The lake survey data were originally collected on tens of thousands of 5-by-7 paper observation cards that are archived at the Institute for Fisheries Research, a collaboration between the university and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“Starting more than a century ago, lake surveys have been used to understand how fish were distributed across the state, which lakes would support sport fishing and how lakes should be managed,” said project co-leader Karen Alofs, an aquatic ecologist and an assistant professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

“Digitizing this historical data will allow us to analyze trends in fish communities over time and to relate those trends to a warming climate and to other environmental changes and management decisions.”

Hernán López-Fernández, co-principal investigator, said, “I think that what I find most exciting about this project is that it exemplifies how natural history collections are one of our best tools to understand environmental change. What this project does is give us actual data about what the environments of Michigan were like at various snapshots in time, and what fish (or any biodiversity) was associated with them. The data in these cards we are working with give us a century of insight into changing environments. Without that information, we cannot understand how we are changing ecosystems and we lack any hope of one day restoring them to something like they were.

“Beyond the current stage of transcribing the hard-paper data and turning it into usable digital datasets, I am also really excited by us being able to link all that data to the actual specimens in the collection. That will allow us to explore things like how environmental change may have affected aspects of fish morphology, habitat use or reproductive habits, or tell us how changing lake habitats may have changed fish community composition and structure, or the functional role of fishes in their ecosystems.” López-Fernández is an associate professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary, associate curator of fishes, U-M Museum of Zoology and associate chair for collections, EEB Museums.

The crowdsourcing project launched March 16 and is funded by a $90,000 grant from U-M’s Michigan Institute for Data Science. The team includes researchers from the School for Environment and Sustainability, School of Information, Museum of Zoology, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan Library and Shapiro Design Lab, as well as the Institute for Fisheries Research and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The project will use the Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform to engage the public. No previous knowledge or special expertise is required of volunteers, just a willingness to help transcribe historical data about fish species, abundance and size, as well as lake environmental characteristics and sampling details. To join the project, visit Zooniverse.

“Michigan’s inland lakes have been gradually warming for decades and are expected to continue warming in coming decades,” Alofs said. “As these lakes have warmed, the communities of fish living in them have also changed. Through this project, we hope to better understand the extent of those changes and their implications for the resilience of the state’s fish populations in the future.”

The other co-principal investigator of the project, in addition to Alofs and López-Fernández, is Andrea Thomer of the School of Information. Senior investigators on the project are Randy Singer of the Museum of Zoology, Justin Schell of the University of Michigan Library and the Shapiro Design Lab, and Kevin Wehrly of the Institute for Fisheries Research and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Read the full Michigan News release