By Ian Vorster July 29th, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Comment
What lives along New Zealand’s shoreline? Find out, one square metre at a time, with Marine Metre Squared.
Looking for more summertime citizen science projects? Find them here.
Every now and again I come across a citizen science project that inspires me. Don’t get me wrong—most of the people I interview, whether they are counting butterflies, measuring the night sky or plotting the paths of ocean behemoths, are in some way stirring, and I am invariably intrigued (and sometimes enchanted) by what they are doing. But only a select few tap the roots of my early childhood aspirations for nature conservation and environmental research. Mothing was one of them. Firefly Watch, which involved intriguing blinking beetles, was another. Now we have Marine Metre Squared (Mm2). It’s difficult to say what makes it inspiring, but I think it has something to do with the enthusiasm the project owners show, how what they are studying reflects the wonder and diversity of life, and just how far the venture has penetrated public awareness. As I write more and more about citizen science, I think of this as a trifecta. When these three intersect a touch of magic is added—something that draws participants toward a lifelong vocation.
“The project is New Zealand based, we want to know what is happening in the New Zealand intertidal zones. However, we have had international visitors complete surveys on New Zealand beaches. It’s an interesting activity and a great way for tourists to explore the New Zealand seashore,” says Tessa Mills, a manager at the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre. “The Seashore ID Guides that we produce are very helpful for anyone joining the Mm2 project—they are taken home as souvenirs by many international visitors!”
More than 700 people have registered, consisting of a combination of schools (46%), individuals (30%), families (14%), community groups (8%) and tertiary institutions (3%). This is shared equally between the north and south island. “Although not everyone is contributing data we expect that the data submission will grow over time. And the project can be adapted for preschool groups; for example playing eye-spy in a one-meter area. And although they may not be able to identify or count all the species, they may be able to choose one species to look for and count” says Sally Carson, the director of the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre. “Similarly we have had some very knowledgeable individuals say that they have spent almost three hours counting and identifying what is in their square.” To help evaluate the quality of the data collected, the Centre is asking participants to rate the scientific accuracy of the data collected as low, medium or high. That seems to be a unique addition to citizen science—rating the quality of the data you collect is an added element of verification.
The photographic Seashore Guides (Sandy, and Muddy and Rocky) have been incredibly popular with over 140,000 copies being distributed free of charge thanks to Mobil Oil New Zealand Ltd. At first glance, muddy and sandy shores appear barren, but look beneath the surface and you will find a rich diversity of life—as the Maoris say, “Ngā tini o te waitai.” Northern and Southern versions have been compiled to highlight New Zealand’s regional differences. The guides not only feature the plants and animals that live on the shore, but also illustrate the evidence that they leave at the surface; for example, the telltale burrow and volcanic mound of the mantis shrimp. The guide encourages visitors to act as detectives, and find out what lives there without disturbing the habitat.
“We often compare our meter squared quadrant to binoculars. It encourages people to focus on one area and look closer. They are always amazed at what they find,” says Carson. In New Zealand, as in most parts of the world, the coastline is accessible to so many people, yet many know very little about their seashore neighbors. Mm2 hopes this project will help facilitate a global shift towards guardianship of the local environment by the communities that understand the ecosystems they live in and interact with. “While this approach has huge potential, the transition must come with the tools and education to make real community guardianship of the environment successful, and Mm2 is an effective first step in the process,” says Carson. The partnerships that are developing between schools, scientists, community groups and families are key to the success of such an approach. Sounds like fertile soil for that trifecta.
Photo credits: Tessa Mills (top), Kimberley Collins (middle left), Sharron Bennett (bottom right)
Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.
By Rae Moore July 28th, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Comment
Chris Goforth, the creator of the Dragonfly Swarm Project, discusses how citizen science has impacted the study of dragonfly behavior.
Looking for more summertime citizen science projects? Find them here.
Sometimes science is hard. If you want to study something that happens slowly, is rare, or requires thousands of observations, it can take a lifetime to answer even the most basic questions. Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet, where information and willing helpers are readily available at the tap of a screen or a click of a mouse. The internet has revolutionized science as we know it and has allowed scientists to start answering some of those big or hard questions by inviting participation by citizen scientists. Citizen science today allows us to gather information on an unprecedented scale and is starting to shed light on difficult scientific problems by getting more people on the ground in more places than scientists could ever hope to reach on their own.
Dragonfly swarms are one of those difficult problems to solve scientifically. Researchers have known for decades that you can occasionally find huge groups of dragonflies either flying over a well-defined area as they feed on small insects (what I call static feeding swarms) or moving from one area to another in large migratory swarms. However, both behaviors are rarely observed and unpredictable, which makes them incredibly difficult to study. Even if you actively look for swarms, you may only see a couple dozen over your entire life. (I’ve seen 11 so far, and that’s a LOT more than most people will ever see!) One person’s swarm observations are not enough to answer the larger questions about how and why they form or what role they play in the environment. Citizen science comes to the rescue!
In 2010, I created the Dragonfly Swarm Project as a way to answer some of those big questions about dragonfly swarming behaviors. By simply asking people who have seen swarms to share their stories with me, I have so far been able to gather over 3100 observations of this rarely observed behavior worldwide. With the help of my citizen scientists, many of whom have only seen a single swarm, I’ve gathered a huge amount of information about dragonfly swarming behaviors and have learned some interesting things.
Static feeding swarms tend to form in areas where disturbances have occurred, such as exceptionally strong winds, severe thunderstorms, floods, or wildfires. When a disturbance moves through an area, millions of small insects become suddenly displaced. Other disturbances, such as floods, can increase the amount of breeding habitat for some insects, resulting in population explosions. In either case, you’ll see huge numbers of insects in abnormal places with dragonfly feeding swarms forming shortly afterwards. I believe that dragonfly swarms help restore the balance of nature after disturbances by controlling these surges in prey insect populations.
Migratory swarms, in contrast, come in two types. There is a huge annual fall migration of dragonflies along major rivers and coastlines in North America where millions to billions of dragonflies fly from their summer habitats thousands of miles to warmer, more hospitable places for the winter. However, large groups of migratory dragonflies may also occur whenever conditions deteriorate in an area and thousands or millions of dragonflies suddenly move en masse to a better location. This sort of migration is much rarer and far less understood. My project will provide one of the first detailed descriptions of this behavior once I formally publish my results early next year.
My citizen science project is different from many others because participants can’t just go out and collect data whenever they want. Instead, dragonfly swarms are something you just sort of happen upon. One thing is for certain, however: dragonfly swarms are something that fascinate people when they see one. Whether a person thinks the swarm is a magical experience, a sign of a coming apocalypse, or something in between, it’s something that many people want to learn more about. The best way to get people to participate in my project is to make information about swarms available online and ask for swarm reports from my readers. I house my project on my blog and write about it often, and people end up there when they search for “dragonfly swarm” online. I also posted my project on SciStarter a few weeks after I started formally collecting data and that boosted my participation significantly. I blogged about my project for SciStarter in 2011 and to this day it remains an excellent source of data for my project. Listing my project on SciStarter was an excellent early decision I made for my project and I highly recommend that all citizen science project owners do the same.
We’re about to enter the peak swarm season in North America. You’re more likely to see a static feeding swarm or a migratory swarm in the next month than you will see any other time over the next year. If you see a swarm, I hope you will consider reporting it! The world knows more about dragonfly swarms than ever because people like you share your stories with scientists like me. Together, we can do amazing things, and make a little more sense out of our crazy and amazing world.
Images: David Alexander (top); Chris Goforth (middle and bottom).
Chris Goforth is an aquatic entomologist and currently works as the Senior Manager of Citizen Science at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Her jobs allows her to combine research, environmental education, and science communication in exciting ways and she witnesses the power of citizen science on a daily basis as she provides hands-on training and experiences in citizen science to Museum visitors throughout North Carolina and beyond.
By Caren Cooper July 27th, 2014 at 9:46 pm | Comment
Discover Magazine’s September print edition featured an infographic called “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Cats.” Felines seem to lead elusive, mysterious lives. Fortunately, the citizen science project Cat Tracker allows you to track your cat beyond what we can directly observe.
Cats are moody.
In the blink of an eye, a cat can change from aloof to affectionate, playful to predatory, carefree to curious. The myth about nine lives is oddly suitable, but not as nine sequential lives. Instead, it is as though cats have nine personalities which results in living nine lives all at once.
Now their multifaceted personalities make us laugh with LOL Cats.
But the joke is on us. Pet cats remain a mystery living right under our noses. We share our homes with them. We adopt them into our families. And if we let them outside, then there is a significant part of their lives for which we are clueless. Curled up on our laps rests Dr. Jekyll, but out the door goes a stalking Mr. Hyde.
A new collaboration between cat owners and scientists seeks to find out where cats go and what they may eat along the way. The scientists of Cat Tracker are a team of professors and students at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, in NCSU Biological Science (Your Wild Life), and at the NCSU Veterinary School. The cat owners so far are mostly in North Carolina, though recruits are now signing up from many other states, and soon in Australia and New Zealand.
Cat owners outfit their pet with a tiny satellite tracking device on a special collar. Undergraduate Troi Perkins programs the GPS units, fits them into cases that she makes on a 3-D printer, and then visits owners and helps “harness the little fuzz balls.” People outside of the Raleigh area participate in a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) style in four easy steps.
Together, a GPS unit and harness costs about $50. Each cat wears the gear for about a week. Then, while their pets feign innocence upon return from numerous excursions that week, the owners remove the collar, attach the GPS unit to their computer, and download the secrets movements of the silent footed. The cat owners submit the tracking information to a public data repository on animal movements, called Movebank. Until now, Movebank was only used by professional researchers. With members of the public engaging in animal tracking, the amount of information will quickly rise.
Some participants opt to go one step further in their desire to understand their cat companion. They divert the contents of the litter box from the garbage to specimen cups picked up by the NCSU researchers. These fecal samples will be examined for microbes and DNA from the potential remains of wildlife.
To date, Cat Trackers has gathered data on the movement of over 40 cats. Their goal is to track 1,000 cats.
Troi says she most commonly hears Cat Tracker participants say, “Oh my… my cat has traveled over the highway?!” She explains that people are usually surprised by their cat’s outdoor explorations and curious to know whether their cat is a loner or hanging out with their neighbor’s cats. She say, owners “just want to see if their cats are crossing busy roads, visiting other people’s houses, or going into remote wooded areas.”
Researchers wonder similar things, particularly about visits to wooded areas. Cats are not necessarily as benign as their purring might make us believe. Cats transmit diseases to humans. Cats eat birds and other wildlife. A study by Smithsonian and US Fish & Wildlife Service researchers gave estimates that cats kill at a minimum of one billion birds and seven billion small mammals every year.
Roland Kays, Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Science explained that tracking at least a thousand cats will reveal secrets “not only about the typical cat movements, but also about the extraordinary ones. Given that cats are so common in the country, if even 5% of them are moving out into the nature preserves it could be quite harmful to native wildlife.”
Rob Dunn of NCSU’s Your Wild Life explained that “the big result so far is that there are a lot of cats that walk short distances most days and then every so often, for whatever reason, bolt for it often up to a mile before coming right back And then a few cats just seem lost.” On the Cat Tracker website, the cat movements look like starburst pattern in every direction around their home.
As residential areas expand adjacent to natural areas, and become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation and for human wellbeing, conflicts between bird-lovers and cat-lovers escalate. Perhaps more information can help find common ground.
It was over 9,000 years ago when our ancestors started taming nature. First we learned how to turn wild plants into crops. We stored the harvest, but this brought mice. So then, in the Near East, people domesticated cats to function as mousers. We turned wild cats into pets. We’ve bred them to be fluffy and leisurely, yet fierce and playful. Siamese, Tabby, Calico. Their appearances are as different as their personalities. Lions congregate together in prides. House cats simply have pride. An over-abundance of it.
All of our pet cats retain their heritage, balancing a dual identity of being a little wild, a little tame. Cat Tracker provides an in-depth peek into the behaviors of cats, whether predatory, social, or antisocial. Dunn told me that one household with nine cats just signed up. As more owners with multiple cats participate, perhaps we’ll gain insight into the idiom about herding cats and finally come to grips with the futile attempts to control this chaotic group.
This post first appeared at Discover‘s Citizen Science Salon.
Want more citizen science? Head over to the SciStarter portal, where you’ll find 800+ opportunities to choose from.
By Lily Bui - Executive Editor July 25th, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Comment
The World Water Monitoring Challenge results are out!
Earlier this year, I found myself hanging over a concrete ledge by the Charles River. But not to worry – it was nothing dire. I was actually trying to collect a water sample for the World Water Monitoring Challenge.
Talk about diving headfirst into citizen science.
On September 18 of each year, the WWMC encourages people around the world to test the quality of the water near them, share their findings, and become inspired to protect one of the most important (if not the most important) resource on our planet. The entire program runs annually from March 22 (the United Nations World Water Day) until December 31.
The primary goal of the WWMC is to educate and engage citizens in the protection of the world’s water resources. Their philosophy is this: conducting simple monitoring tests teaches participants about common indicators of water health and encourages further participation in more formal citizen monitoring efforts.
It doesn’t just end with submitting your water sampling data. The WWMC make it a point to report the results back to participants each year in an annual report. The data for this year are now available online and open for all to see.
Citizen scientists across 6 continents and 51 countries participated. Taiwan alone reported 92,023 individual efforts. Within the U.S., Florida took the lead with 10,143 reported individual efforts. In all, 10,371 water test kits were distributed.
*The data in this graph represent the mean average results for regions listed in the map, spanning from 2009 to 2013. The results reported for WWMC do not constitute a completely thorough and accurate portrayal of the health of the world’s water. Accurate water quality monitoring requires the use of standard quality assurance protocols and is conducted by trained volunteer monitoring groups and professionals around the world.
WWMC participants sampled local lakes, streams, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and other water bodies and ran simple tests for four key water quality indicators: dissolved oxygen, pH levels, temperature, and turbidity. (Learn more about why these things are important to measure when it comes to water quality monitoring.) Some groups even tested for the presence of macroinvertebrates such as dragonflies, mayflies, and scuds. Samples were taken in a range of settings – agricultural, commercial, residential, and industrial.
This project is ideal for anyone who lives near a water source, educators who want ideas to teach students about water chemistry, or citizen scientists hoping to get their feet wet with an increasingly important field of research.
Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She is also the STEM Story Project Associate for Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. This fall, she’ll be a masters candidate in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui.
By Ian Vorster July 23rd, 2014 at 8:16 am | Comment
This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.
At first glance, Gem County in Idaho seems like it has everything made. Its county seat, Emmett was named “the best small city in Idaho,” and it will soon be launching a $53 million hydroelectric project destined to expand capacity to power 9,359 homes a year. But health data told another story when the community placed last in Idaho for healthy behaviors in the 2010 County Health Rankings.
News of the Rankings was a wake-up call for Bill Butticci, the mayor of Emmett, and many of the county’s citizens. They formed the Community Health Connection group with the goal of improving the county’s ranking.
The group began by conducting a community exercise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called CHANGE (Community Health Assessment and Group Evaluation ), a process that identified tobacco use, obesity, and chronic disease as areas on which to focus their health change efforts.
With no significant budget, the group began by offering free or low-cost programs—educating the community about tobacco use, establishing walking trails, and more. They also established a community garden along with a learning garden to teach youth healthier eating alternatives, and how to grow their own healthy food. And Gem County became the first in the state to ban smoking in certain buildings and park space.
Now Mayor Butticci uses the Rankings as a way to monitor the county’s health, “The Rankings give us a score card to keep us on track,” he says.
The County Health Rankings, an annual look at how counties compare within all 50 states on key factors that impact health, helps counties understand what influences the health of residents and how long they will live.
“The major appeal of the Rankings is that they simplify complex data into an easily understood number or rank that can be used to generate attention toward specific issues, such as obesity, children in poverty, high school graduation rates, housing and teen pregnancy,” says Dr. Bridget Booske Catlin, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Population Health Institute, and the director of the County Health Rankings. “They prompt action by community leaders, politicians, funders, and community residents to improve their health and the health of others in their community.”
The Rankings have their origins in America’s Health Rankings, state-level rankings that have been published since 1990.
“Curious about why the state rankings rose and fell over time, my colleagues at the university’s Population Health Institute (UWPHI) began to wonder if, just as Tip O’Neill maintained that ‘politics are local’, that perhaps ‘health is local’ too. They delved into the task of measuring the health of Wisconsin’s counties and released the first Wisconsin County Health Rankings in 2003,” explains Catlin.
Over the next few years, other states became interested in using UWPHI’s approach to understand the health of their counties, and the work came to the attention of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) which decided to collaborate with UWPHI to expand the Rankings to every state. In 2010, RWJF and UWPHI released the first national County Health Rankings.
Communities in Action
Communities have used the Rankings data to help them identify problems to solve, shift expectations to a longer view, and evaluate success over time.
In 2013, RWJF introduced the RWJF Culture of Health Prize to honor communities that have placed a priority on the health of their citizens. The prize winning communities vary in size and type – some are larger urban cities and some are small rural areas. But they all have one thing in common: In each of these places community leaders, individuals, business, government and educators have forged powerful partnerships to inspire people to live healthier lives.
“Our goal is to use this award to bring national attention to the prize winners’ strategies and solutions, and inspire other communities to learn from their experience and set their own course for better health,” says Joe Marx, senior communications officer at RWJF.
In the first year of the prize, about 160 communities applied and in the second year, that number increased to over 250 places who are working to make their communities healthier places to live, learn, work, and play. For 2014, the RWJF Culture of Health Prize winning communities are Brownsville (TX), Buncombe (NC), Durham (NC), Spokane (WA), Taos Pueblo (NM) and Williamson (WV).
“We also have worked closely with national partners—United Way Worldwide, National Association of Counties, and the National Business Coalition on Health, and their affiliates in hundreds of additional communities who are looking at data from the Rankings and then developing partnerships with people from many different sectors to build a Culture of Health,” explains Abbey Cofsky, a senior program officer at RWJF.
Check out your county’s ranking at County Health Rankings (There is a really helpful little toggle switch on the right of the page, which allows you to identify low-scoring areas). As a citizen scientist, are there data could you collect to help improve health in your county? For example, could you lead a charge to catalog the number of bike paths or parks in the area and their condition? Share your ideas below.
Think your community is doing a good job at improving health? RWJF recently released the Call for Applications for the 2015 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.
Interested in health related citizen science? There are a number of other projects that are seeking your input as a citizen scientist. The projects below are part of a database of more than 800 citizen science projects created and managed by SciStarter, an online citizen science hotspot.