Wanted: Citizen Scientists—No Experience Necessary: Get Involved in Research Projects
In February 2007, tens of thousands of bird-watchers across the continent uncapped their binoculars, sharpened their pencils, and got out their checklists. In the course of four days they sighted more than 11 million birds of 616 species, providing the most detailed snapshot of continental bird distribution in history, according to Great Backyard Bird Count cosponsors Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. In the past, ornithologists had no way to gather and process data of such magnitude. But using the internet, powerful computers, and the observations of thousands of lay field workers, researchers can now almost instantaneously collect, interpret, and map mountains of data from the birding community.
Illustration by Marshall Hopkins
This kind of volunteer effort is nowadays called “citizen science,” and researchers at universities, advocacy groups, and government agencies are increasingly relying on the work of volunteers to collect information from the field. Amateurs can sign up to monitor stream-water quality, count frogs and toads in wetlands, measure rain- and snowfall, and track the monarch butterfly's annual migration. The work of volunteers is especially valuable in gathering data for large-scale, long-term research projects like those tracking changes in the distribution of native and invasive species and the impacts of climate change.
The term citizen science is new, but what it describes is not, says Terrie Miller, publisher of the website CitizenSci.com and a volunteer with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory Hawkwatch and Bay Area Raptor Nest Survey. People without college degrees or specialized training have long made important contributions to disciplines from astronomy to zoology. Knowledgeable amateur birders and professional ornithologists have collaborated for decades on projects like the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, which is now 108 years old. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were both passionate amateur scientists. After only three months of official schooling, Thomas Edison went on to invent dozens of processes and devices that are basic to the way we live today, including the first commercially practical incandescent light.
Over the last century, though, the barrier between the scientist and the amateur has solidified. “The term scientist has come to mean someone with a doctoral degree from an accredited university who's smarter than us and gets paid by corporations or institutions that know what's best for us,” says Miller. Whatever motivates citizen scientists these days, “whether it's a need to save a local habitat or the sheer joy of understanding one more piece of trivia about a red-tailed hawk, we need to take science back,” she says.
Observations made by volunteers tend to include more inaccuracies than those of trained scientists, says Gillian Bowser of the National Park Service, but equipping volunteers with electronic tools such as GPS (global positioning system) tracking devices and digital cameras helps minimize error. Handheld computers and dedicated web portals allow volunteers to submit their data rapidly—and to see the results quickly. “The web gives us the ability to tell a story about that information fast. We can show people the product of something that they are a part of and provide them with instant gratification,” says Bowser.
But while technology has spurred this movement, “the growth of citizen science is in some ways in spite of the internet,” says Miller. “People are looking for reasons to be outside—they need a goal. Volunteers often start out doing projects because they want to do something good, and then they keep at it because it's fun,” she says.
The best citizen science projects are fun, says Sam Droege, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Research Center in Maryland. “They are also safe for the participants, involve volunteers' passions, and are interactive,” says Droege, who helps design research projects that use volunteers to gather wildlife data. And “what's good for the volunteer is good for us, because if volunteers don't like our projects, we're not going to get good data,” he adds.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden has itself employed citizen scientists. In 1989, BBG launched the New York Metropolitan Flora (NYMF) project to survey the flora of all counties within a 50-mile radius of New York City, including all of Long Island, southeastern New York State, northern New Jersey, and Fairfield County, Connecticut. Twenty-eight citizen scientists made note of all the woody plants they found growing in assigned areas and submitted the data to BBG scientists. The NYMF volunteers are part of the most comprehensive study yet of the flora of the New York City metropolitan area, and their work has helped BBG scientists track the rise in invasive plants in the tri-state area.
Here is a list of citizen science projects from around the country that weekend gardeners, master horticulturists, and nature lovers might find both fun and fascinating. Why not give one a try? Who knows—you might become a regular on the citizen science circuit!
Mountain Climate Watch: Scientists at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in the eastern U.S. are recruiting hikers to help document the impact of changing weather patterns on the life cycle of alpine plants. Over the past two years, AMC has collected data on numerous plant species from more than 5,000 hikers and is analyzing it for climate-change trends. The club recently expanded the program to include data on forest flowers and fall foliage. Visit www.outdoors.org for more information.
Search for Lost Ladybugs: Ladybugs are essential predators on farms and in forests, where they keep aphids and mealybugs in check. Over the past 20 years, several native ladybug species have become extremely rare. At the same time, several nonnative species have greatly increased both in numbers and range. Researchers at the Cornell University Department of Entomology seek volunteers to help find out which native ladybug species are still extant and how many individuals are around. Participants take photos of the ladybugs they find, note the time, date, location, and habitat, and submit the information to the research group. Learn more at cornell.edu
Native Plants and Climate Change: Project Budburst is a new field campaign organized by a consortium of botanic gardens and universities to monitor the impact of climate change on plants across the country. Participants note the dates of the development of buds, leaves, and flowers on 30 native trees and shrubs, 24 wildflower species, and four common introduced plants in their area. By tracking when native species first start to leaf out and flower each year, organizers hope to determine how climate change is altering the characteristics of the continent over time. Sign up for the study at the Budburst site.
Great Lakes Worm Watch: Nonnative earthworms are making a dramatic impact on the forest ecology of the Great Lakes region. The University of Minnesota's Great Lakes Worm Watch aims to increase our understanding of the role nonnative species play in the alteration of ecosystems. The group provides tools and resources for citizens to actively contribute to the development of a database documenting the distributions of exotic earthworms and their impacts across the region as well as training and resources for educators to help build understanding of the methods and results of scientific research about exotic earthworms and forest ecosystems ecology.
Bioblitzing: A bioblitz is a quick, intensive ecological survey in which biologists of all kinds work with volunteers to identify and document as much flora and fauna as possible in a concentrated period of time and defined area. These surveys serve as a baseline to document future changes (additions or losses) to the diversity of this ecosystem. To find a bioblitz in your area, check the websites of your local botanic garden, zoo, or other natural history organizations.
All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: Seventy parks in the National Park Service, including Acadia National Park in Maine, Yellowstone National Park, and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., have begun or are about to embark on All Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs), intensive efforts to catalog all of the species found within the parks' borders. In the longest-standing ATBI, at the 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park, scientists and volunteers are recording everything from spiders in the soil to slime molds in the forest canopy. They have already discovered at least 650 species new to science. By conducting these inventories across most eco-regions of the country, organizers hope to provide the first comprehensive assessment of biodiversity in the U.S. For more information, go to atbialliance.org.