Barcodes are a useful tool for labeling and tracking ecological samples

Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America
By: , and 



Barcodes are used to label and track just about everything these days. Look around your office, in your medicine cabinet, at the package you just received in the mail, or on the shelves of any shop in town, and you will immediately grasp the ubiquity of their use. Interestingly, railroads and supermarkets were the early pioneers of barcode development: the former needing a way to track railway car location and ownership on a national scale, the latter needing a way to track a diverse array of products and to decrease checkout times (Nelson 1997). Barcodes first came to use in the sciences via the field of medicine, and the medical literature contains hundreds of publications describing how this technology has reduced errors in patient specimen identification and handling, where error mitigation is crucial. In short, barcodes have been adopted by many industries, and in many fields they are now synonymous with asset tracking.

In spite of their potential to efficiently organize “assets” (i.e., samples) and minimize human error, the use of barcodes has yet to gain widespread application in ecology. In an age where students take notes on laptops instead of paper, and where “text messaging” involves a smartphone rather than a ball‐point pen, why do otherwise tech‐savvy ecologists persist in hand‐labeling samples? Why do we repeatedly transcribe long and unique identifiers at each step in the process of sample analysis, thereby wasting time and creating opportunities for transcription errors and data loss? Why are most sample storage areas only successfully navigable by the lab manager who personally shelved the samples? In the case of our large ecology lab—and, we suspect, in many others as well—the answer to these questions was perpetually, “bar‐coding won't be worth the trouble.” Recently, however, we realized this was no longer a sufficient answer when we started a new research project that involved collecting an additional thousands of samples each year; we decided to embrace the tangible benefits of an electronic labeling system, and implemented barcoding in our lab.

To be clear, the use of barcoding in ecology is not completely novel, and there have been early adopters of this technology. For example, the Cedar Creek Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site has been using barcodes since at least the mid‐1990s to track the large number of samples collected in their long‐term experimental grasslands (T. A. Kennedy, personal observation). Overall, however, Cedar Creek is an outlier: in informal e‐mail surveys of LTER sites, only two of eight respondents used barcodes for sample identification or tracking, and even then their use was generally limited to certain samples or certain stages of sample analysis. Our objective in this article is to use our lab as a case study to highlight the potential of barcodes to simplify numerous aspects of sample collection and processing.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Barcodes are a useful tool for labeling and tracking ecological samples
Series title Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America
DOI 10.1890/0012-9623-95.3.293
Volume 95
Issue 3
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 8 p.
First page 293
Last page 300
Country United States
State Arizona
Other Geospatial Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park
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