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.

Geo_Auth_Rec . Continent_Ocean
VARCHAR(50) not null

Continent/Ocean: 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)
South Atlantic Ocean (Area C)
North Atlantic Ocean (Area B)
Indian Ocean (Area F)
missing data: “no higher geography”

Geo_Auth_Rec . Country
VARCHAR(50) null

Country 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


Geo_Auth_Rec . State_Prov
VARCHAR(75) null

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

  • Example: Magadanskaya oblast
    • Not: Magadan district
    • Not: Madanskaya Oblast
  • Example: Baja California Norte

Geo_Auth_Rec . Sea
VARCHAR(50) not null

Seas 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,” 409-page PDF). 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: 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.

Geo_Auth_Rec . Quad
VARCHAR(30) null

Map Name (Quad): 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.”)

Geo_Auth_Rec . Feature
VARCHAR(50) null

Geographic Feature: 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.

Geo_Auth_Rec . Island_Group
VARCHAR(50) null

Island Group 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

Island: 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
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
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:

  • Saint Lawrence Island
  • Spitzbergen
  • Dangerous Reef


Source is limited to the URL of a page on English Wikipedia. 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 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.
North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, United States, Alaska
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
Geo_Auth_Rec . Higher_Geog
VARCHAR(255) not null

Higher Geography (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:

  • Asia, Russia, Kamchatka Oblast (Formal term)

    • Камча́тская о́бласть (Native character encoding)
    • Kamchatskaya oblast (Common variant or transliteration)


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 creating and editing geographic terms in Arctos.

Geographic terms are difficult to standardize because:

  • They originate in many different languages, and alphabets.
  • They are correctly but variously presented using different translation and transliteration protocols.
  • They are frequently changed by political processes.

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). You may be forced to choose between cleaning up several records or creating an outlier; we recommend being consistent above all else (and  leaving verbose notes in remarks when necessary).

  • Be consistent. At the largest practical scale (usually ~country), do the same thing for all records. For island nations, ensure that the island data are consistent. Ensure all county-level records include qualifiers (County, Parish, etc.) or that none do.
  • Be certain that the term you intend to create does not already exist. Alternative spellings, transliterations, or abbreviations are probable. If you are creating a new state or province, first look carefully at all the unique values for State/Province from the relevant country. These values can be especially confusing if the term refers to an area where the Roman alphabet is not used.
  • Use current definitions. Yugoslavia no longer exists, so use Slovenia, Croatia, or whichever country the locality is now in. If Yugoslavia was used in the original data, it now belongs in verbatim locality, not in Higher Geography. If you are editing specimen records, append the old higher geography to verbatim locality in the following order: verbatim_locality, state, country.
  • Try not to mix terms; try to use modern geography. We have no idea how to do that when, e.g., one Province of Kenya becomes 6 Counties. Especially in the case where the “new” shares namestrings with the old, confusion is almost certain. (Alternative interpretation: Geography is names, not shapes, and it doesn’t matter if “Naples” can refer to a dozen THINGS in Italy.)
  • Use the spelling of geographic term that is in the title of the English version of Wikipedia’s entry for that term (but see below). Wikipedia describes most (possibly all) of the world’s current politically-delineated geographic units. Do not use something transcribed from a label or fieldnotes for a new value in Higher Geography. Look it up in Wikipedia. If it doesn’t exist, and you are sure it’s valid, create the article in Wikipedia.
  • Enter the full (English strongly preferred) Wikipedia URL under “Authority” of the geography entry; it will be automatically converted to HTML. Link to the most specific Wikipedia page available; do not link to anchors in general articles, lists, maps, images, or anything except the most specific relevant article in Wikipedia. The Wikipedia link must directly describe the Arctos record.
  • No accents, umlauts, Cyrillic, Chinese, etc. Do it in ASCII-128. Arctos has bitwise indexes and the specimens from non-US/ASCII geography will be invisible in geographic searches. This may require that you modify the Wikipedia spelling; for example, Huánuco must become Huanuco.
  • The overriding goal is to have exactly one set of terms describing the most precise (NOT necessarily the smallest) formally named and delineated geographic term that is applicable to localities. There can be ten terms referring to things that overlap or are contained within “Inyo County,” but there should be exactly one thing that is Inyo County.
  • Google is your friend. “{local word for county} County” is no longer amusing. New York City isn’t in Inyo County, Texas, no matter what it says on the label. (Label data should be transcribed to verbatim_locality.)
  • Do not introduce unnecessary descriptors or ranks, but also do not exclude parts of proper names. “Santiago Metropolitan Region” in state_prov is correct; Maule Region in state_prov is redundant and confusing. Use the construction used by Wikipedia.
  • Do not partially translate. “Región de la Araucanía” (disallowed under rules “use English Wikipedia” and “use ASCII128”) should be entered as “Araucania”, not “Region de Araucania” or “Region Araucania.”
  • Do not “promote” entities. Cities, vaguely-described districts, 4th-level administrative entities, and things the collector made up are verbatim_locality and should not be stuffed into geography. Chilean Communes, for example, are “real” political entities, but as sub-county-level divisions are not formal geography.
  • Do “standardize” spelling. Sometimes you’ll have to do something arbitrary, and that’s OK as long as you do the same arbitrary thing for all versions of the entity. Provincia de Aysén, región Aysén del General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo is entered as “South America, Chile, Aisen, Aisen,” for example, because “Aisen” is a somewhat-common transliteration, not because it’s any particular form of “correct.”
  • Use only “official” abbreviations. “Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve” is correct. “Something Prov.” is never acceptable.
  • No parentheticals, cryptic square brackets, inline translations, etc.
  • No unnecessary punctuation or separators. Kenya, North Eastern Province, never Kenya, North-Eastern Province.
  • DO include any equivalent data excluded by these “rules” in “search terms.” These are becoming increasingly valuable in automated mapping to Arctos (and reducing duplicates); please MINIMALLY copy all of the “alternate names” (such as Spanish place names containing diacritics or “local” names given in Arabic or Thai characters) from Wikipedia into individual search terms fields.
  • Do NOT include descriptive text (such as the language in which a term is given) in search terms. Along with facilitating access to data, search terms are also used by data cleanup tools, and things which are not search terms in the search terms field will prevent those tools from working properly. Do not confound search terms with remarks.
  • Do NOT include non-equivalent information, such as island “subgroups” or alternate spellings of “parent” geography (country, state, etc.) data in search terms.
  • Use remarks to describe remarkable things about the geography itself, such as when the named place existed or how it differs from potentially-confusing other places. Avoid using remarks for procedural information or remarks concerning other data (such as specimens or localities).
  • See Iran for an “complete” example.

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:

  • automatically suggest geographic coordinates
  • reverse-georeference – i.e., derive descriptive geographic terms from asserted coordinates

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.