Traveler’s toolkit: Museum maps out Alaska flora and fauna, past and present

You’re searching around your backyard, and you find something new. You know the name of it, but you have no idea how common it is. Dozens of people before you have observed this same plant or animal. You don’t need to do work others before you have done. You can draw from their experiences.

If you’re setting out on a trip to your backyard or the Brooks Range, there are several tools you can use to explore every facet of what to expect before you set foot out the door.

The UA Museum of the North’s collections are a locked-away wonder, but you can track down where they came from by using the online database Arctos. Arctos is a joint effort between multiple museums to unlock their collections with an online interface.

“Database” is a disconcerting word — it sounds like “data mining,” which sounds like a lot of work. Arctos doesn’t have fancy user-friendly graphics, either. However, once you learn how to crack it, Arctos can answer a lot of questions you may have when observing Alaska ecosystems:

1. Where can I find my favorite plant?
2. What kinds of animals live near my house?
3. When did scientists in Alaska first start finding a particular insect this far north?
4. If I don’t have regular access to the museum collections, how can I compare and contrast willow species for a class report?

Basically, if your question can be vaguely answered using some museum specimens Alaska scientists have found, Arctos can guide you to the answer. Here’s a quick tutorial (press the “stop” button if you want to flip through it at your own pace):

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