Help biodiversity by becoming a citizen scientist

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Spectacled Caiman

If there was any doubt that climate change is the most urgent global threat today, one need only observe the Australian bushfires for a scary and sobering reality check.  Estimates of the number of animals thought to have died over the past few months is staggering (estimates of 1 billion animals) as is knowing that such disasters, fueled by rising temperatures and climate change-induced drought, will become worse in the future.

Given the scale of the problem, it is quite easy to feel overwhelmed.  However, being that psychological paralysis does not help, one positive and easily achievable thing people can do to help biodiversity is contribute to the collection of data through participation in citizen science databases and surveys.

Wildlife surveys in which the public is invited to participate have existed for over a century.  The longest running one being the Audubon society’s Christmas bird count (CBC). Begun on Christmas Day 1900, initially 27 birders in a variety of locations counted 18,500 individual birds that represented 89 unique bird species.

Today, tens of thousands of volunteers participate in the CBC which runs from December 14 through January 5 each year. The longitudinal data collected is used by researchers, conservationists and wildlife agencies to monitor the long-term health of bird populations across North America, and to develop strategies to support birds and their habitat.

Passerini’s tanager

In the digital realm, eBird is a website and an app that will allow you to upload, identify and share your bird sightings year round.  eBird is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project with over 100 million sightings recorded each year by users worldwide.

Last year, scientists published a study using observations recorded in eBird to describe where 604 migratory North American bird species live today. They then used the latest climate models to project how ranges will shift as the climate warms and other human impacts occur, to map areas of critical bird habitat for conservation.  

A taxonomically more inclusive on-line repository is iNaturalist, which was created by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.  We have used iNaturalist to record our sightings of birds, plants, animals and other species made at home and abroad. What I like about it is the ease of which you can assign taxonomic classifications to your observations by allowing iNaturalist’s AI interface to suggest an ID, by looking through similar species images, or through crowdsourcing (IDs made by other users).  

Perhaps it is the scientist in me that likes to explore, but iNaturalist has enabled me to appreciate that there are 10x more moth than butterfly species, and many can be observed by simply looking around your porch light at night. I’ve also learned some cool moth biology which allowed me to determine what was eating one of my plants last summer. I mean, who would’ve known this was anything other than a stick? (see photo right)

Geometer moth larva

Also, because iNaturalist saves all your photos and IDs in one place, it is easy to recall when and where you saw something, and even to keep track of a lifetime species list. Similar to eBird, iNaturalist has partnerships and associated sub-surveys that specialize in different taxa or locations. Many biologist participate in and use iNaturalist in their work. In 2018, over 100 peer-reviewed research studies were published that used iNaturalist data, which is a far more constructive use of time spent on-line or staring at our smart-phones, than most social media.

To summarize, the internet and apps have made it easier than ever to contribute to biodiversity science by observing and sharing your species observations. Citizen science initiatives help scientists document biodiversity and ecological relationships at a time when species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since its inception in 2008, iNaturalist users have mapped when and where sightings of more than 250,000 species have occurred. Such data, collected over years can help identify long term trends in biodiversity not always possible by traditional funding. It may also be used to:

  • Alert natural resource managers to the arrival of an invasive or potentially harmful species. 
  • Understand how populations may be changing due to climate change or other human impacts.
  • Identify areas of critical species habitat for conservation.
  • Establish a baseline of plant and animal species in an area for possible ecological restoration in the future.
  • Document species variations that exist in nature.

An added benefit of citizen science is education, as people will care more about species they know about. Another is impact. By combining observations from various users, one’s individual effort can be scaled up and thereby have more weight. Plus spending time in nature has its own rewards (like stress reduction), so grab your camera, get outside and observe!