Archive for the ‘Ecology & Environment’ Category
by Aditi Joshi
Are you a resident of the northern US or Canada? You can help scientists to spot amphibians!
Welcome Spring! As the temperature rises, the beauty of spring unfolds: snow melts, flowers bloom, and birds begin to chirp. In the amphibian world, spring marks the beginning of breeding activities. Among amphibians, wood frogs and spotted salamanders are usually the first to breed, laying eggs (spawns) in short-lived pools, ponds and wetlands.
Scientists like Dr. Stephen Spear, from the Orianne Society, are interested in monitoring amphibian breeding activity for further insight into the effect of climatic changes on certain ecosystems. For instance, a cold spell in spring may disrupt the breeding activities of amphibians. Additionally, the presence of commonly found amphibian species, such as wood frogs and spotted salamanders, indicates a relatively healthy landscape, which helps determine important conservation areas.
Monitoring the timing of breeding activity can be tricky. Wood frogs and spotted salamanders are found in wetlands across various states, including Alaska, southeastern states such as Georgia and Tennessee, northeastern states such as New York and Maine, and large parts of Canada. Realizing a small team would be ineffective in monitoring wood frogs and spotted salamanders widely distributed across the U.S. and Canada, the scientists sought support from citizen scientists.
Last year, the Orianne Society launched the citizen science project ‘Snapshots in Time’, providing participants with a unique opportunity to identify, observe, and photograph the various stages of amphibian life that they found near their homes. In 2014, citizen scientists contributed over 100 such observations. More observations reported from southern states as compared to northern states, likely due to the differences in the breeding season. In states such as North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan, breeding season spans from April to June, unlike southern states where breeding activity begins in January. This year, the project hopes for more observations from the northern states. Compared to the adult and egg stages of amphibian life, larvae are more difficult to spot, and only 15 percent of the observations were of the larvae and metamorphic stages. Some participants were able to see a fascinating courtship ritual – a well choreographed dance by salamanders to attract their partners.
According to Dr. Spear, spotted salamanders live on land but breed in wetlands. People who study spotted salamanders look forward to ‘mass migration’, an intriguing breeding activity where, on a rainy night, salamanders parade en masse from land to wetlands. That’s an exciting natural history experience.
Visit Snapshots in Time on SciStarter and learn how to participate.
If you loved reading about this citizen science project from SciStarter, use our project finder to search our database of more than 1000 projects! What’s more, subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll send you handpicked citizen science projects once every two weeks!
Aditi Joshi, a freelance science writer, is an expert in the field of clinical psychophysiology. She holds a PhD in Human Physiology from the University of Oregon and has published several academic papers. Apart from science, she is interested in Native American art, and art history.
Editors Note: This post by SciStarter contributor Eva Lewandowski describes her experiences with citizen scientists from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which was featured in our recent Spring themed newsletter. Check out the rest of the projects on that list here. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project is also one of more than 800 citizen science projects on SciStarter. Use our project finder to find one that fits your interests!
What do citizen scientists gain when they collect data for a research study? What do they learn, and how does it change them? These are some of the questions that I try to answer in the course of my PhD research. As a graduate student in the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab, I have an up-close view of our lab’s citizen science project, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP), which has given me an excellent opportunity to find out how citizen science affects the citizen scientists themselves. Over the past few years I’ve spent a great deal of time meeting, writing about, and studying our MLMP volunteers. More often than not, what strikes me about these interactions is the volunteers’ familiarity with and connection to their monitoring sites.
At the MLMP, we study how the population of monarch butterflies varies in space and time; given the dramatic decline in monarch numbers over the past decade, it’s more important than ever that we understand the factors impacting the monarch population. Each fall, monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the California coast to overwinter, while the monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains travel thousands of miles to Mexico, where they spend the winter. In the spring, the monarchs in Mexico begin to make their way north throughout the United States and Canada, going through several generations before they reach their northern-most destinations. Once there, they continue to reproduce until it is time for a new generation to fly south the Mexico.
Throughout the breeding season, MLMP volunteers across North America monitor milkweed patches weekly for monarch eggs and larvae. Volunteers choose their own sites, and the only requirement is that it has milkweed; monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed, so it must be present if you hope to find monarch eggs or caterpillars. Milkweed isn’t as prevalent as it once was, but it can still be found in gardens, parks, pastures, and roadways, so volunteers don’t usually have trouble finding a patch to observe; those that do can plant their own milkweed. In addition to counting the number of eggs and larvae that they see, volunteers also provide data on the number and types of milkweed and flowering plants at their site.
Because MLMP volunteers monitor the same milkweed patch week after week, and often year after year, they are usually extremely familiar with their site. Most can tell you off the top of their heads what species of milkweed and nectar plants they have, as well as when they come up and when they bloom; many also know which plants are the monarchs’ favorites and which are preferred by other insects.
And because monitoring for monarch eggs and larvae involves carefully examining the leaves of milkweed plants, volunteers encounter a lot more than just monarchs on their milkweed plants. From soldier bugs to milkweed beetles to aphids, MLMP volunteers are familiar with a wide variety of insects that make their home on or around milkweed. Many MLMP volunteers can use the field guide Milkweed, Monarchs and More, coauthored by MLMP Director Dr. Karen Oberhauser, to identify and learn about the flora and fauna commonly found in milkweed patches.
The book focuses mainly on plants, insects, and arachnids, but our volunteers also enjoy observing birds, amphibians, and mammals while collecting data. Participants often snap a picture of the interesting animals they see in their plots to contribute to the MLMP Photo Gallery, such as when long-time MLMP volunteer Jan Sharp found herself “eye to eye” with a tree frog perched on her milkweed, or when Diane Rock stumbled across a black bear in her milkweed patch.
Observing and learning about the plants, animals, and overall ecosystem of their monitoring site is one of the best parts about being an MLMP volunteer, but our volunteers also love that they can share that experience with others. Many of our participants monitor with children, usually their own or their grandchildren, which gives them a chance to connect young people to nature. We even have a few second-generation MLMP volunteers, people who started monitoring with their parents and now monitor their own site or have taken over the original site.
MLMP is so much more than just collecting data on monarch abundance. It’s an opportunity to get outside, to learn about a piece of land and everything that lives on it, and to share that connection with others. We’re always in need of more volunteers; if you’re looking for a chance to get outside and connect with nature, while making a meaningful contribution to science and conservation at the same time, join the MLMP!
Photo: Wendy Caldwell (larva), Gail Gilliland (volunteer monitoring)
Eva Lewandowski is a PhD candidate in the Conservation Biology Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota. She is part of the Monarch Lab, where she studies citizen science and conservation education.
Is Climate Change Causing the Seasons to Change? Citizen Scientists in the UK Help Find Out with Nature’s Calendar
Interested in more spring themed citizen science projects? Check out the ones the SciStarter team has handpicked for you here! Or use SciStarter’s project finder to find one that piques your curiosity!
In 1998 Tim Sparks, a research biologist at Britain’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridge started a pilot project designed to record the first blush of spring. Sparks saw the importance of continuous phenology records—a record of when plants start to bud and flower, and wanted to revive a phenology network in the UK. Shortly thereafter The Woodland Trust (the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity) joined forces with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to promote the scheme to a wider audience, which is how the citizen science project Nature’s Calendar was born. Read the rest of this entry »
This guest post by Sharman Apt Russel describes a citizen science experience with the the project, Nature’s Notebook featured on our recent Spring themed newsletter. Check out the rest of the projects on that list here. Nature’s Notebook is also one of more than 800 citizen science projects on SciStarter. Use our project finder to find one that fits your interests!
Here in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern New Mexico, I am intimate now with three trees in my backyard: a box elder (Acer negundo), a desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), and a honey mesquite (Prosopsis glandulosa). I know when these plants become luminous with the green of new leaves, when they flower, when their flowers turn to fruit, and when their fruit falls. I also have a warm relationship with a male four-winged saltbush (Atriplex canescens), having rubbed his yellow pollen sensuously between my fingers, and with a female four-winged saltbush, admiring her extravagant and seasonal cloak of papery seeds. Perhaps my greatest new friend, however, is a soaptree yucca (Yucca elata), whose single stalk grows up quickly and prominently in late spring, its buds producing a mass of scented creamy-white flowers—like a six-foot-high candle glowing in the dusk. Read the rest of this entry »