Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category

California Dreaming

By July 21st, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Comment

Red-eared Slider (Photo by Gregory Pauly)

Red-eared Slider (Photo by Gregory Pauly)

Citizen scientists document in collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles help document reptiles and amphbians in Southern California to aid in conservation efforts. Find more information about participating in RASCals, the citizen science project on SciStarter and watch out for our herptile themed newsletter!

by Sharman Apt Russell

This June, I walked the wilds of Los Angeles looking for lizards. And snakes. And turtles. And because I was finally looking for them, I also began seeing them—and isn’t that a basic truth of life as well as  citizen science?

I visit Los Angeles for ten days twice a year as a teacher for the low-residency MFA graduate writing program at Antioch University. My time in nature is mostly spent in a few long runs near my hotel and in walking back and forth from the hotel to the university campus. This summer, wherever I went, I also took along my camera. I was on a mission for the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project—to document any reptile or amphibian I came across and to send that image to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Read the rest of this entry »

I Used to Be A Moth Assassin. This is How I Fell In Love With Them

By July 11th, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Comment

Photo credit: Sandra Lanman

Photo credit: Sandra Lanman

Turn on your porch light at night and bring out your inner citizen scientist. Record observations of moths for National Moth Week and help scientists understand these unique Lepidopterans.

Guest post by Sandra Lanman

I used to be a moth assassin. I’d grab the swatter or scream for my husband whenever one fluttered erratically inside the house.  Either way, that critter would not make it out alive. Then I met Dave Moskowitz and Liti Haramaty. I would be “saved,” and so would a lot of moths.

For years, I’d hung around my town’s Butterfly Park and shot photos of beautiful swallowtails, monarchs, great spangled fritillaries, American ladies and more. I never considered that moths hung out there too. I once spent days trying to identify a lovely little Lepidopteran I’d photographed by searching butterfly websites. Finally, a friend found it on a moth site. It was an eight-spotted forester. I had no idea moths could be so cute.

I first met Dave and Liti at the park, where we’d mostly talk butterflies. In 2011, they invited me to a moth night, promising I would have a blast. I was amazed. In the glow of mercury vapor lights, dozens of moths and other insects alighted on white sheets. Children were holding them, even putting them on their noses. No one had a swatter. Even I held a moth on my hand that night.

In late 2012, Dave and Liti asked for my help. That summer, they had founded National Moth Week as a project of the nonprofit Friends of the East Brunswick (NJ) Environmental Commission. They envisioned a citizen science project observed during the last full week of July that encouraged people to “turn on a porch light” and contribute their sightings to partner organizations like Project Noah, Encyclopedia of Life, BAMONA and others.

In its first year, National Moth Week exploded beyond the founders’ wildest expectations. Thanks to social media and their connections in the entomology and environmental worlds (Dave, an environmental consultant, is earning his Ph.D. in entomology at Rutgers and Liti is a marine researcher there), events were registered in 49 states and 30 countries. They knew I worked in public relations. Would I help them with communications? Of course!

Being on the NMW team has been an extraordinary experience because we are engaging people of all ages in a new learning experience. Moths have barely gotten any positive notice outside the entomology community, and certainly got little respect from most people. NMW is changing that.

National Moth Week invites people of all ages and abilities to learn about the beauty, diversity and ecological importance of these often maligned creatures. Their photos and observations add to the body of knowledge about Lepidoptera and scientists’ understanding about impacts of development or climate on their local habitats. Whether observing moths in their own backyards, or attending a local moth night, citizen scientists can easily become more knowledgeable about what to look for.

Hummingbird Moth (Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa CC BY SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Hummingbird Moth (Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa CC BY SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Social media has been a huge asset in spreading the word to new and experienced moth-ers. NMW is now growing organically, and we often learn about NMW events that are not registered on our site. We give all participants a certificate of participation and keep them informed about how it’s being celebrated around the world. Last year, Jacob Gorneau, 17, became our youngest team member, representing the young environmentalists we hope to inspire.

National Moth Week has been featured on NPR’s Science Friday, in The New York Times, Washington Post and on many news sites. Among our biggest supporters are science media, bloggers and moth-aficionados out there encouraging citizen scientists to get involved.

To keep it interesting, NMW focuses on a different family of moths each year. National Moth Week 2015 which runs from July 18-26 is the year of the Sphingidae family, which includes the commonly called hawk moths, sphinx and horn worms. The day-flying “hummingbird moth” is among the most interesting, and we hope to get a lot of sightings.

This year, we began a campaign to have the Automeris io, symbol of NMW, designated the official state moth of New Jersey. If the pending legislation is successful, New Jersey would be the first – and hopefully not the last – to designate a state moth!

“Moth-ers” of all ages and abilities are invited to register their own events or attend a nearby public event listed on the NMW website. Registration is free. Venues have included National Parks and Monuments; nature centers; state, county and local parks and recreation areas; museums, libraries and camps, as well as backyards everywhere. Every year, organizers get more creative, hosting “moth balls,” “malt, hops and moths,” “moth mania” events, and more.

Needless to say, I am no longer a moth assassin. I’ve attended lots of moth nights and I’m planning to set up my own outdoor lights soon, so I can enjoy mothing whenever I want.

For more information about moths and mothing and to participate in this global event, check out the National Moth Week on SciStarter. Follow National Moth Week on Facebook and Twitter @moth_week for updates!

A former print journalist, Sandra Lanman has been a professional communicator for more than 25 years, working in the arts, higher education and public broadcasting. She and the rest of the National Moth Week team are all volunteers.

Can You Name this Paw Print?

By June 16th, 2015 at 8:00 am | Comment

Paw print (Credit: Andrew Mace/FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Paw print (Credit: Andrew Mace/FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A citizen science program documents the movement of six species in the mountain ranges and river valleys of northern New Mexico helping create wildlife corridors. For more wildlife related citizen science projects, visit SciStarter.

by Sharman Apt Russel


Wild animals glide so easily through the landscape, into bushes and leaves, up trees, around corners, even diving into the earth, so that you often wonder: was that a fox or a wish? Did I really just see a bobcat? Is that whoofing noise a black bear, startled now and galumphing down the hill? Read the rest of this entry »

Dragonfly Watch – Find Those Fast and Furious Insects!

By June 12th, 2015 at 12:12 am | Comment

A tandem pair of Common Green Darners (Anax junius) laying eggs. © Dennis Paulson.

A tandem pair of Common Green Darners (Anax junius) laying eggs. © Dennis Paulson.

“I’m an aquatic entomologist, and dragonflies and damselflies are the most colorful and noticeable insects in the habitats in which I work,” says Dr. Celeste A. Searles Mazzacano, a staff scientist and Aquatic Conservation Director at the Xerces Society. In her role as the project coordinator for the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership, she continues to add acclaim to these fast and furious little critters, “The nymphs are amazing predators with extremely cool adaptations for feeding—hinge-toothed lower lips that shoot out faster than the eye can see—and respiration rectal gills that double as a jet-propulsion chamber!”

The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) is a collaborative partnership that was set up between experts, nongovernmental programs, academic institutions, and federal agencies from the United States, Mexico, and Canada, in which citizen scientists play an integral role. There are many questions currently surrounding dragonfly migration that MDP is trying to answer. For example, says Dr. Mazzacano, “What is the southern extent of migration, what is the relationship between resident and migratory members of the same species at the same site, and do all individuals that migrate south from a single place, go to the same destination in the south, or do individuals drop out and overwinter at different latitudes?” The primary goal of the project is to answer some of these questions and to provide information needed to create cross-border conservation programs to protect and sustain this amazing migratory phenomenon.

The Project has enjoyed an extremely positive response from the citizen science community. “Because the adults are so lovely, I consider dragonflies to be the poster children of aquatic invertebrates. They are much easier to see and care about than the equally important but less obvious mussels, stoneflies, and mayflies,” adds Mazzacano. Many people are fascinated by dragonflies but don’t really know anything about them, and consequently want to learn more, and find good places to observe them. “Interestingly, many birders are also getting into dragonflying.”

There are five dragonfly species that are the most regular annual migrants in North America. The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership collects data on them in two ways, via two different but connected citizen science projects. For the Migration Monitoring project, citizen scientists report dragonflies heading south in the late summer and fall (these may be in the tens of thousands, thousands, or a steady trickle of individuals—it varies); and the Pond Watch project, where the local life history and the relationship between resident and migrant dragonflies of the same species in the same habitat is investigated. Here citizen scientists are asked to report on the presence or absence, abundance, and behaviors of migratory species at their Pond Watch site on a regular basis throughout the year.

Green Darner on the finger of a course participant. Courtesy Xerces Society.

Green Darner on the finger of a course participant. Courtesy Xerces Society.

The project has only been running for three years, which means that MDP is just now beginning to accumulate enough data to publish findings. “One of the first products was a comprehensive review paper by steering committee member and [retired Rutgers University] odonate expert Dr. Mike May ,” says Mazzacano. “And we have a paper in the works about the results of the stable hydrogen isotope studies done on wings of migrating dragonflies to determine how far they traveled from the site where they developed and emerged as adults.” That paper should be out later this year.

With current emphasis on the unique ability of citizen science projects to meet Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by providing opportunities for inquiry, MDP is now partnering with Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, who is working on dragonfly-based curriculum for school children. “And more immediately, we are beginning to work now with local organizations that focus on environmental opportunities for Hispanic youth in the Portland Oregon area to offer dragonfly-based environmental education in Spanish,” notes Mazzacano.

As with many hobbies, after all the inquiry has been satisfied, it comes down to enjoyment and recreation. The most exciting thing about the project for Mazzacano is that it gets more people outdoors interacting with insects in a positive way, and  connects those people to their local ponds and wetlands. “Freshwater is the most threatened resource we have, and when people learn about and start to love the creatures in local waters that they might not even have known existed prior to this, they will become more engaged in trying to protect those resources,” says Mazzacano with enthusiasm. And of course it has also been exciting for her, thanks to the data collected by citizen scientists, to be able to answer some of the many questions that exist about dragonfly migration. “I think this connection to freshwater is a benefit that will go on long after individual citizen scientists learn about, and help with MDP projects.”

Would you like to become a citizen scientist in this project? Connect to the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership here, register your local pond, pack a picnic hamper and head out to monitor the timing, duration, and direction of travel of migrating dragonflies. Note any additional behaviors, such as observed migratory flight, feeding or mating, and you are encouraged to take photos or record video coverage.

When gathered across a wide geographic range and throughout a span of years, these data will provide answers to questions about which species are regular migrants; the frequency and timing of migration in different species; sources, routes, and destinations of migrants; and the health of their environment.

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


The White House Wants Your Help to Stop the Decline in Pollinators

By May 27th, 2015 at 11:59 am | Comment

Pollinators: A critical component of a healthy ecosystem. And oh, they also affect 35% of the world's crop production. (Image Credit: USFWS)

Pollinators: A critical component of a healthy ecosystem. They also affect 35% of the world’s crop production. (Image Credit: USFWS)

Pollinating animals play a crucial role in our food production system, and they are essential in maintaining the health and vitality of many ecosystems.  Unfortunately, many pollinator species, such as bees and butterflies, have been declining recently.  In response to that decline, the national Pollinator Health Task Force, commissioned by the White House, recently released the Pollinator Health Strategy. Read the rest of this entry »