Higher Geography

Higher Geography is a combination of terms delineating geopolitical units and it includes many imprecise regions. These terms are descriptively applied to Localities. In so far as counties occur within states, states within countries, and countries within continents, these data are approximately hierarchical, but only approximately. For example, a state park or national forest may be comprised of segments from two or more counties. Columns in the Higher Geography table are concatenated into the column higher geography which is uniquely indexed. The concatenated string “higher geography” is the only column displayed and used in data entry. Unfortunately, you cannot assume that any locality or area is listed under only one higher geography. The guidelines below are intended to prevent (and even remedy) such inconsistencies.

Continent / Ocean

Geo_Auth_Rec . Continent_Ocean VARCHAR(50) not null

All records in Higher Geography have a value in this field. A record with the value “no higher geography” is applied to specimens with no geographic data. Western Russia is in Europe, eastern Russia is in Asia. Both are sometimes in Eurasia.

Terrestrial Marine
North America North Pacific Ocean (Area D)
Central America South Pacific Ocean (Area E)
South America Arctic Ocean (Area A)
Europe South Atlantic Ocean (Area C)
Asia North Atlantic Ocean (Area B)
Africa Indian Ocean (Area F)
Antarctica missing data: “no higher geography”


Geo_Auth_Rec . Country VARCHAR(50) null

is the familiar concept of first-level political entity, though various territorial claims complicate reality. We currently recognize Greenland as a country and not as a state in Denmark. (It would not occur to most users to search for muskox from Denmark.)

Note that country is political, not geographic, as demonstrated by georeferenced specimens “from France.”

This is
France France

State / Province

Geo_Auth_Rec . State_Prov VARCHAR(75) null

These are primary subdivisions of a country, be they states, provinces, departments, or okrugs.


Geo_Auth_Rec . Sea VARCHAR(50) not null

are defined as divisions of oceans, but for a large proportion of open ocean, seas are not applicable. For example, the waters north of Point Barrow, Alaska are in the Arctic Ocean but are in neither the Chukchi nor Bering seas. Similarly, the coastal waters of California, and the east coast of Japan can be designated only as North Pacific Ocean. There have been efforts to formally delineate seas and oceans (e.g., the U. S. Navy’s “Chart of Seas and Oceans” and the U. S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s “Geopolitical Data Elements and Related Features,”).

These should be consulted for the name of seas, or if there is a question about whether a locality is appropriately included in a particular sea. (In their effort to be comprehensive and consistent within a domain where rigorous definitions are not commonly used, these references occasionally offend common sense.)


Geo_Auth_Rec . County VARCHAR(50) null

County is a second-level political subdivision of a county, regardless of local labels. “Primorsky Krai” is a County in the Far Eastern Federal District (a State) of Russia. Localities should be referenced to county, parish or equivalent political subdivision when possible. Note that administrative hierarchy rather than local terminology defines County: Montserrado County is a State in Liberia and does not belong in the County field.

Map Name (Quad)

Geo_Auth_Rec . Quad VARCHAR(30) null

The name of the U. S. Geological Survey maps in the 1:250,000 series. Because Alaska lacks anything as inclusive counties, “quads” have been used extensively in organizing collections and interrogating data. (Although note that a combination of Borough and Census Area is all-inclusive and mutually exclusive and therefore serves as a suitable if large-scale “county substitute.”)

Geographic Feature

Geo_Auth_Rec . Feature VARCHAR(50) null

Features include named entities such as parks, preserves, refuges, and other delineated geo-political features. Feature may also be used to describe recognized sub-groups of islands. Many administrative units included in Feature have ephemeral boundaries, if not an ephemeral existence. Their past and future use may be inconsistent. Therefore, avoid using Feature if the locality is well georeferenced and/or unequivocal in the absence of Feature.

Island Group

Geo_Auth_Rec . Island_Group VARCHAR(50) null

is defined as the largest island group or Archipelago to which an island belongs. Island groups within island groups should be indicated in Geographic Feature.

Sea Island Group Feature Island
Bering Sea Aleutian Islands Andreaonof Islands Adak Island


Geo_Auth_Rec . Island VARCHAR(50) null

When a locality includes an island name, and the locality is on or near an island, then the name of the island should be included in this field. An island is included in this field if a locality has the word “island” in its proper name even though (depending on the tides) it may be a peninsula. (Rhode Island is nevertheless a state.) An offshore locality that is associated with, and near, an island should include the island. For example, if the Verbatim Locality is “100 yds off of the beach, Bay Farm Island, Alameda Co., California”, then the Higher Geography record should include:

Country State County Island Specific Locality
United States California Alameda County Bay Farm Island 100 yds off of the beach, Bay Farm Island

On the other hand, a locality description may include an island only as a point of reference, e.g.,“456 nautical miles SSE of Midway Island.” In this case, inclusion of data in the island field is inappropriate. The island name should be included in the island field even though it may be the same as the specific locality, e.g.,

Country State County Island Specific Locality
United States California Alameda County Pin Head Island Pin Head Island

Names should be spelled out, including the word “island” when it is part of the name. Some valid island names:


Source is limited to the URL of a page on Wikipedia. English is strongly preferred; Spanish is acceptable. (Contact us with other needs.) If such a page does not exist, it should usually be created. However, in some instances such a page would be overly redundant or conflict with Wikipedia guidelines, in which case the next-most-specific entry is appropriate. Examples follow.

Geography Source Explanation
North America, United States, Alaska http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska Well-defined unambiguous entity – yay us!
North America, United States, Alaska, Ambler River Quad http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska There is no Wiki page for USGS quad maps. The data are unambiguous (there is or is not an appropriate USGS quad map) and mostly internal, so a general citation is tolerable, if not entirely appropriate.
North America, Beaufort Sea, United States, Alaska http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaufort_Sea This is “Arctos shorthand” for “Beaufort, probably West of the Canandian border.” The relevant Wikipedia article is the Sea. Note also that a geospatial search on this general area finds 7 geography entries; georeferencing is critical when geographic data is ambiguous. Best practice would be to avoid this sort of undefinable geography altogether.
North America, United States, Alaska, Mt. McKinley Quad, Denali National Park and Preserve http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denali_National_Park_and_Preserve There is no Wikipedia entry for the area of Alaska that’s within both DNP and a USGS quad, so pick the most specific available.

Higher Geography

Geo_Auth_Rec . Higher_Geog VARCHAR(255) not null

(as a specific data field) is a the actual concatenation of the subdivisions described above. This is the value that is displayed in most applications.

Field Summary

Category Examples Short Definition
Continent/Ocean North America, Arctic Ocean An all-inclusive set of divisions of the globe.
Country United States, Iraq, Tibet The primary political entity.
State/Province Florida, Magadanskaya oblast Primary subdivision of a country, whatever its formal rank.
Sea Bering Sea, Gulf of Mexico A subdivision of an ocean. (See chart.)
County Lincoln County, Cajun Parish County, parish, or equivalent subdivision of a state or province.
Map Name (Quad) Fairbanks, Beaver Names of quadrangles delineated by USGS 1:250,00 map series.
Feature Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Anza Borrego State Park Miscellaneous named and delineated entities below the level of state.
Island Group Alexander Archipelago, Franz Joseph Land A named (but sometimes poorly defined) group of islands. These data are often replicated in Feature.
Island Kodiak Island, Svalbard A single island.

Additional Data

In addition to the “formal” fields, the Edit Geography form provides for any number of UTF-encoded additional identifiers. These should not be considered “formal”

terms, but as search aids. The “any geography” specimen search field will consider these data, and they will be displayed on Specimen Detail.

Usage Example:


A remarks field is also provided. Information in this field is intended to provide guidance and clarification in future geography creation or merge events, and is not searchable nor intended for public display.

Guidelines for Geographic terms in Arctos

Geographic terms are difficult to standardize because:

Scrupulous consistency is essential. With inconsistent data, users will not find what they’re looking for, and operators will not be able to use import tools. The primary function of these guidelines is to promote consistent, predictable data across Arctos; while proper data in a single record is important, more important is being consistent at scale (across states, islands or island groups, countries, and ultimately all of Arctos). These guidelines have been developed to facilitate consistency, and to allow tools which facilitate consistency to exist. Do not deviate from the Guidelines without contacting the AWG.

Guidelines for assigning geography to specimens.

A primary purpose of Higher Geography is to facilitate finding specimens, and so a primary curatorial goal should be to facilitate that usage. Arbitrarily or improperly linking geography to specimens WILL result in users not finding what they’re looking for. For example, if point X, Y is described by both Geography A and B, queries for either “A” or “B” will find some unknowable subset of the intended specimens, and provide no clue to the user that there are additional suitable specimens assigned to another geography entry, thereby failing to provide the user with an accurate answer and decreasing the overall value of the specimens and their associated data.

  1. Geography is not a replacement for Agents. Use accession roles, projects, etc., to e.g., recognize contributions from the National Park Service.
  2. Whenever possible, georeference localities, even crudely. Geographic terms in Arctos are a mess, but georeferenced specimens can pull geographic data from webservices or GIS at will.
  3. A huge number of specimens say “Bla County” but have a geospatial error that extends well beyond Bla County. Consider error when determining geography from coordinates and when determining coordinates from geography.
  4. The Edit Locality form will detect variation of geography used in nearby georeferences and in identical specific locality strings. Unify these data when possible.

Searching Guidelines

Higher Geography should be viewed as “semi-arbitrary curatorially-assigned string” rather than “singular definitive placename.” A specimen with a very precise and accurate georeference might be assigned to a state, state+USGS map quadrangle, state+county, state+feature (e.g., military reservation), or any combination of these and more. These assignments depend on collection-specific curatorial practices, the information available when a specimen was cataloged, and various other factors. Especially for cross-collection queries, it is often advisable to search “Any Geographic Element” (which considers webservice-derived data) or to search using the “Select on Google Map” option. Both of these methods work best with georeferenced specimens; additional or exploratory queries may be necessary to find all relevant specimens. Use the contact link at the bottom of any Arctos page for assistance.

Terrestrial versus marine descriptors

Coastal localities should be described with terrestrial descriptors. For offshore localities, the Higher Geography should include at least the ocean in Continent/Ocean and, if applicable, it should also include Sea. (Therefore, “coastal” specimens are often impossible to location by descriptive geography queries.)

Webservice Data

In addition to curatorially-asserted data, Arctos also uses data from various web services to:

This often adds searchable standardized data, but sometimes results in erroneous results. Service-derived data are viewable under Edit Locality, and searchable through “Any Geographic Element.” Use more precise terms (Continent, Feature, etc.) to avoid the inclusion of these secondary data. See also Additional Data.