Sunday, April 10, 2011

Top 5 Citizen Science Programs

Did you have dreams as a little kid of becoming a scientist?  Experimenting in a lab with your white overcoat or possibly in shorts and a wide-brimmed hat surveying the animals of the Serengeti?  Did those dreams for one reason or another not pan out the way you thought they would?  No need to despair!  You can still be a scientist thanks to the internet and citizen science programs!

Citizen science programs allow amateurs with no formal training to participate in scientific endeavors, such as counting, measuring, and observing various species, and reporting their findings by submitting forms to a website.  It makes larger scale scientific research more feasible because hundreds if not thousands of people participate across broad geographical areas and submit data for a single project, something that even a handful of the most dedicated scientists could never accomplish.  And they need you and me to help them track and count species so we can learn more about them and their habits.

There is no shortage of citizen science projects out there to participate in.  Check out this website for a ton of options for participation.  Today I am going to focus on just a few projects that I like the most and feel are more sophisticated in their vision and layout and which engage the participants the most.  Let's get started!

5.) Firefly Watch - Everyone in their life at some point has been fascinated by fireflies, or possibly you called them lightening bugs.  It just isn't summer without the blinking of fireflies, but maybe you noticed there don't seem to be as many as there were when you were a kid.  Maybe it is because you aren't looking as hard as you used to, or maybe there really are fewer bugs lighting up their butts as there once were.  That is why the Museum of Science in Boston started Firefly Watch in 2008.  Fireflies face many threats such as pesticides, fertilizers, and light pollution.  You're going to be seeing them on warm summer nights anyway, why not report your findings to Firefly Watch and help them understand firefly populations and how we humans are affecting them.  This would be a great project for kids to get involved in and would be a great teaching opportunity for how to collect and submit data.

4.) North American Amphibian Monitoring Program -Started by the USGS to monitor frog populations by listening for their calls.  This project requires a little more work than others.  They ask for a 3 year commitment to drive the same route every year and listen for calling frogs.  You will need to be familiar with amphibian calls and you can test your current skill and learn more here.  The project is certainly worth the extra work.  Frogs worldwide are in decline, one-third of all frogs are facing extinction in the near future.  Several factors are combining that are threatening frog populations, most notably climate change and the fungus chytrid.  Frogs are some of the best environmental indicators, telling us the quality of our environment.  What they are telling us is not good.  Please consider adopting a route and help scientist learn more about these amazing and meaningful creatures.

3.) Monarch Watch - Monarch butterflies are one of the wonders of the natural world because of their migration south to Mexico every fall.  It is amazing that birds fly so many thousands of miles to reach North America every year, it's even more amazing that a trip of roughly the same distance can be completed by such a small delicate insect as a butterfly.  And the Monarchs that fly south in the fall aren't even the same as the butterflies that arrive in the spring, they are their great-grandchildren.  Needless to say these guys are fascinating and now you can help tag and track Monarchs as they make their way south in fall.  Monarch Watch was started by the University of Kansas as a way to study their populations.  Volunteers can order tags and go searching for Monarchs in the fall.  The tags are small circles you put on the Monarch's wing that have a unique identification number on them that is unique to you.  That way if someone else recovers one of your tagged butterflies it can be tracked to your location and will give the researchers and idea of the routes the butterflies take on their trip to Mexico.

2.) Project Budburst - This citizen science project focuses on phenology, specifically the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants.  Phenology is the study of timing in nature, for instance the first time a dogwood tree blooms in the spring or the last swallow seen in the fall.  If good records of these events are kept then several years can be compared and we can learn from the trends that develop.  Increasingly plants are beginning to leaf and bloom earlier than in decades past.  It is believed this is caused by climate change and the overall warming of the earth.  As the earth warms, the cold seasons get shorter, and therefore spring arrives earlier.  The consequences of this phenomenon are unknown at this point.  How species will react is still being studied.  That is why Project Budburst needs your help.  They need you to identify, record, and report to them the leafing, flowering, and fruiting times of the plants around you.  Doing so will allow researchers to better understand how the earth will respond to the warmer climate that is developing now.

1.) eBird -Possibly the largest and most well-known citizen science project that was started by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.  eBird allows birders to report birds they have seen, keep track of checklists, explore dynamic range maps, share photographs, and of course help contribute to science and conservation.  eBird is a sophisticated website, allowing you to view various stats and graphs on the birds you have seen.  The sightings you see are social, meaning your data is viewable by everyone else and likewise their data is viewable by you.  This allows you to see what birds are being seen in your area and where to find them.  Your data will help scientists study bird populations, resulting in dynamic maps like the one below for the Chestnut-sided Warbler.  See more species maps here.

I hope that you will consider contributing to one of the projects above.  Looking at the data from most projects, the state of Kentucky is usually underrepresented.  Our state seems to be consistently behind others in reporting to citizen science projects.  Let's do something about that and fill in the map by contributing today!


Science Cheerleader said...

Thanks for sharing this! These and hundreds of other citizen science projects are featured in a searchable database at

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