Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category
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.
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.
Share jellyfish sightings, track stars during evening beach strolls, count fireflies, or report dragonfly swarms while you’re at the beach this summer. Or participate in dozens of other summertime citizen science projects and advance fields of research in the process! Why not do them all?
Hey! If you’re involved in more than one project, we’d like to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out why.
Globe at Night
Because of light pollution, six out of 10 people in the US have never seen our Milky Way Galaxy arch across their night sky from where they live. Now you can measure the night sky from the beach and contribute to important research. Get started!
Dragonfly Swarm Project
Ever see a dragonfly swarm? Magical, aren’t they? Share your observations to help researchers understand where and how these aerial predators swarm. Get started!
Have you seen a jellyfish? Report it to Jellywatch — a public database documenting ocean conditions. They are especially interested in jellyfish washing up, but also track red tides, squid and mammal strandings, as indicators of ocean health. Get started!
Marine Metre Squared
MM2 is an easy way to survey the intertidal community in New Zealand. Monitor a 1m x 1m square patch of your local rocky shore once every season by recording the animals and plants that live there. Get started!
Monitor marine resources and ecosystem health at 300 beaches across northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Survey your beach every month and COASST will put the data together and decipher the patterns across the entire survey range. Get started!
Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) volunteers conduct beached bird surveys along the east coast of the United States in order to identify and record information about bird deaths. Help identify where bird carcass are found, and how this varies across time. Get started!
The Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication, and Health project participants monitor high-risk Washington state beaches for the bacteria called “enterococci” to reduce the risk of disease for people who play in saltwater. Get started!
Check out “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.
Live in Los Angeles county? Photograph butterflies and moths, and help scientists study climate change.
Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!“Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one…” 
In the heat of summer monsoons, butterflies accompany the paddling turtles in the lake outside my window… butterfly? Wait a minute; I remember dragonflies, not butterflies, from childhood. Nightly news reports every evening that our fragile blue marble is undergoing significant changes. Could butterflies and moths help scientists understand how living organisms adapt to climate change?
More than 174,000 species of butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, or scaly-winged insects, have been cataloged, making them some of the most successful insects to flutter across our planet. Vital to local ecosystems, butterflies and moths are important food sources and pollinators, only differing in their coloration (bold colors vs. drab monochrome) and diurnal/nocturnal range. Yet, only 236 species of butterfly have been observed in Los Angeles County.The Los Angeles Butterfly Survey, a partnership between the all-volunteer Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is working with citizen scientists to count and photographically catalogue the butterflies, and moths, found between the urban skyscrapers of southern California.
Becoming a butterfly, or moth, hunter has never been easier. Citizen scientists simply photograph, noting the date, time, and location, of their winged sighting. The photo and observations are then uploaded to the BAMONA website, where experts identify/verify the species before adding the find to their database. The data is used to develop a visual database and life history page for each species including stunning, user-submitted, photographs and maps reflecting recent sightings.
Kelly Lotts, co-founder of BAMONA, notes, “It is very easy for kids to grab cameras and to take photographs of species found where they live or at their school… Kids really enjoy being able to point to their dot on the map, to their actual photograph.”Since its launch in 2011, the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey has become an invaluable tool encouraging city dwellers to become scientists for the day. Over 628,000 butterfly and moth sightings have been recorded across all of North America; 1320 for southern California. Lotts goes on to explain, “We get a lot of data requests from scientists looking at butterflies as indicators of climate change… in 2011 and 2012, in California, there was a sighting of Hyalophora cecropia each year. This is very unusual as the Cecropia is found in the east of the Rocky Mountains.”
Citizen scientists benefit from their involvement as well. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, they are mapping local species in order to inform planting in the pollinator garden. New projects are sprouting up including the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. According to Lila Higgins, Manager of Citizen Science for the museum, “Citizen scientist are already getting so much out of their experience. They are thinking like scientists – making predictions about what they are going to find in the coming weeks. Talk about science in action.”
Why not grab a camera and enjoy the summer sun while waiting for a butterfly to flutter by?
References and Resources:
 Image courtesy Tony Maro (BAMONA submission).
 Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail
 Image courtesy Wendy Caldwell (Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles).
 Data courtesy BAMONA website.
Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of life science and helping the general public explore their world. She holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh for research into how antibiotics kill bacteria, was a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and is a published photographer. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science. Not content to stay in one place for very long, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, plotting her next epic adventure, or training for the next half marathon.
With the help of the public, researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, have found out that the Eurasian kestrel can be “seduced” by the city lights, but this decision comes at a cost, with lower reproductive success and a poorer diet.
Urbanization is a global event that is invading natural habitats, inevitably leading to a decrease in biodiversity. However, rather surprisingly, this is actually creating new habitats for some species. “Most city dwelling birds are exploiting human resources, like garbage dumps (for example gulls), feeders (granivore birds), or artificial nest sites/nest boxes for cavity breeders”, said Petra Sumasgutner, lead author in the study. “If a species can exploit the urban environment is therefore very much connected to what it needs in its natural habitat”.
In particular, the Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) is frequently associated with urban landscapes, and Vienna seems to be a popular destination for these birds. For years, Sumasgutner observed kestrels building their nests in small cavities, abundant in old historic buildings, and her scientific curiosity led to further questions about how this is affecting the species.
To find these much wanted answers, her team decided to investigate occupied nest sites in and around Vienna, along a gradient of urbanization from least covered to most covered by buildings. Since coverage of the entire city of Vienna looking for kestrels required many watchful eyes, researchers enlisted the help of volunteers to help them in this search over 3 years. “It was a lot of effort to work with the media and the general public, but it was also a lot of fun. Especially the collaboration with the chimney sweepers and the firefighters was the best”, said Sumasgutner.
It turned out that, although the availability of breeding cavities attracts many birds to highly urbanized areas, city life is not all that’s cracked up to be for kestrels. Birds nesting in the city were more likely to abandon the nest, resulting in lower hatching rates and smaller fledged broods than those breeding in the outskirts. The authors suggest this effect may be a consequence of a forced change in the bird’s diets while staying in the city, as their natural ability to hunt rodents on the ground needed to shift to find small birds instead.
At first, it may seem these city-dwelling raptors are exploiting the urban environment, but a closer look reveals what the authors called an “ecological trap”, with unexpected costs both in terms of reproductive success and prey availability. When asked about the future of kestrels in the city, Sumasgutner’s answer is clear: “not at all in the inner-city”. After observing how kestrels can also nest in purpose-built nest boxes, the author suggested using “the same mechanism which attracts kestrels to breed in highly urbanized areas to actually lure them in a more suitable habitat, like buildings around larger city parks or also the suburban area of Vienna”.
Maybe this could be their next citizen science project, again enrolling the help of the public to save the kestrel. After all, “I would work again in a citizen science project”, concluded Sumasgutner.
Interested in kestrel citizen science projects? Monitor American kestrels with the American Kestrel Partnership or the Massachusetts Audubon American Kestrel Monitoring Project.
Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.