Brett Amy Thelen is Program Director for Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory (AVEO), a project of the Harris Center for Conservation Education, a land trust & conservation education organization in the Monadnock Region of southwest New Hampshire. Yesterday I posted part 1 of an interview with Brett about the Salamander Crossing Brigade she coordinates each Spring. This is because of her dedicated promotion of citizen science, which she explains in today’s post. Below is the conclusion of the interview…
Could you give a thumbnail sketch of what is citizen science, and offer an example or two of citizen science projects that you have enjoyed?
“Citizen science” is a trendy, relatively new term for something people have been doing for decades, which is: scientific research in which trained volunteers collect part or all of the data. (Water quality monitoring is a citizen science classic!)
The term “citizen science” means different things to different people, and encompasses projects of all shapes and sizes, from the continent-wide Backyard Bird Count organized by Audubon & the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (in which volunteer birders recorded observations of over 17 million individual birds throughout Canada & the US over the course of four days this spring!) to the AVEO projects I coordinate, which are smaller and more local in scale.
My first experience with a citizen science project – the thing that really got me hooked on field biology – was as a volunteer on a horseshoe crab spawning survey conducted by the Massachusetts Audubon Society out on Cape Cod in 2001. (That particular citizen science initiative was part of a larger research project aimed at assessing horseshoe crab numbers on the outer Cape, in response to concerns about declining horseshoe crab populations.)
I had never participated in field research before. Our task was to visit certain Wellfleet Bay beaches at high tide, close to the full & new moons, lay out a series of quadrats, and count the crabs in a very systematic way. I loved getting a glimpse into the world of those ancient, mysterious creatures, and the fact that they were “my” study organisms helped me feel connected to them in a much deeper way. Sometimes, the high tide rolled in at 2 am, which gave the whole thing an air of mystery and excitement.
I decided to go on for a graduate degree in Conservation Biology in part because of that experience, and I still take students back to that wildlife sanctuary to participate in horseshoe crab study, as part of an undergraduate coastal field ecology course that I teach for a nearby university; it never ceases to thrill them.
Now that I coordinate citizen science projects of my own, I have a few favorites:
The Salamander Crossing Brigades are always great fun, though predicting the amphibian migration in time to notify my volunteers (with spring weather becoming increasingly more unpredictable) has its challenges, and the project falls more into the realm of stewardship than of science. Still, this is by far our most popular citizen science initiative, and with good reason!
I really enjoy our Vernal Pool Projects, in which I train volunteers to identify and document vernal pools, then send them off onto public & conserved lands to collect data on this vital, yet oft-overlooked wildlife habitat. The ephemeral nature of vernal pools – brimming with life in spring, dry by fall – is truly enchanting, and the data collected by our volunteers have been enthusiastically received by local Conservation Commissions.
I also really dig Project Nighthawk (a collaboration with New Hampshire Audubon) for the novelty of collecting information on the behavior of a state-endangered bird simply by walking around downtown Keene at dusk with a clipboard and my ears. That project is also fun because I get to use the word “crepuscular” a lot.
What’s the future of citizen science initiatives like the ones you’re involved with? Will we see more of these in the future, or do you perceive people becoming less connected and concerned with the ecosystems they’re part of?
There’s a reason we’re all hearing more and more about citizen science, and that’s because it’s growing in popularity. Traditional scientific institutions recognize the value of building support for their work by inviting the public to participate in it, and nature enthusiasts get a lot out of knowing that someone actually cares about their observations. I am concerned about our growing cultural disconnection with the natural world, but it really only takes one magical moment – that first glimpse of a spotted salamander’s serene smile, or the tracks of a horseshoe crab gliding along on her ancient rounds – to help folks re-engage with the wild world.