About the Virtual Museum
The Virtual Museum (VM) provides the platform for citizen scientists to contribute to biodiversity projects. This innovative concept was originally developed by the Animal Demography Unit at UCT in 2005. It is now managed by The Biodiversity and Development Institute (BDI), an independent non-profit company, and The FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology.
For many people, the word “museum” conjures up images of a place to see stuffed animals on display. But this museum is not like this. Every real museum does not only have displays; there is always a door labelled “Private: Staff Only.” Go through that door, and you get into the scientific part of the museum. If it is a biological museum, it consists of large collections of specimens. Frequently there are large numbers of specimens of the same species from different parts of the range. They are all carefully preserved and labelled with the date and place where they were collected, and the name of the collector. The Virtual Museum is just like this part of the Real Museum, except that instead of specimens on shelves or in bottles, we have digital photographs arranged in a database.
Members of the public are encouraged to submit digital photographs for the various sections of the Virtual Museum. Together with the photograph goes the same information as on the label of the specimen. Species identifications are done by a panel of experts.
The databases in the Virtual Museum are used for multiple purposes. The most common use is to collate all the places where a species has been photographed, and to generate distribution maps for the species. These are available online and serve as conservation and education tools. These maps include Virtual Museum records and sometimes also other distributional records which are contained within the Virtual Museum database.
Virtual Museum records help expand the distribution databases for these taxa; they not only confirm the presence of a species at a particular point in time, but they also provide new distribution records for species and sometimes lead to extensions of the known range of a species. We try hard to “refresh” old records, so the maps are kept up to date.
Although the Virtual Museum database contains the exact localities of records, the only information made publicly available is the quarter-degree grid cell in which the record occurs. These are roughly square, with sides 27 km, about 700 km2. This is the scale at which information is published in atlases. For species that are subjected to poaching (e.g. rhinos, but a substantial list of other species as well), the records in the database appear to disappear as soon as they are identified. This is an unfortunate and important security feature of the Virtual Museum.