SciStarter Blog http://scistarter.com/blog Covering the people, projects, and phenomena of citizen science Wed, 01 Apr 2015 09:00:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Monarch Larva Monitoring Project Helps Citizen Scientists Build Connections to Naturehttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/04/monarch-larva-monitoring-project-builds-connections-to-nature/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/04/monarch-larva-monitoring-project-builds-connections-to-nature/#comments Wed, 01 Apr 2015 09:00:21 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11184 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 […]

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Photo: Wendy Caldwell, MLMP

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.

photo of MLMP volunteer

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.

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Is Climate Change Causing the Seasons to Change? Citizen Scientists in the UK Help Find Out with Nature’s Calendarhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/is-climate-change-causing-the-seasons-to-change-citizen-scientists-in-the-uk-help-find-out-with-natures-calendar/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/is-climate-change-causing-the-seasons-to-change-citizen-scientists-in-the-uk-help-find-out-with-natures-calendar/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 09:00:11 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11179 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 […]

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A Seven spot ladybird (Image Credit: Richard Bekker)

A Seven spot ladybird (Image Credit: Richard Bekker)

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.

Data now collected by citizen scientists in the United Kingdom using Nature’s Calendar can be compared to historical data such as the Royal Meteorological Society and Robert Marsham datasets. The Royal Meteorological Society established a national recorder network in 1875 and annual reports were published up until 1948. Robert Marsham was Britain’s first phenologist and recorded his ‘Indications of Spring’ from 1736 until his death in 1798.

Following these records more recently an amateur phenologist Jean Combes began noting when oak leaves budded each spring. She started making notes in 1947, and provided incredibly valuable information for the post-war period when climate change was beginning to become a more distinct environmental issue. Combes’ oak leafing dates have been used by scientists, government departments and research organizations interested in the impact of a changing climate on trees and wildlife. Dates from 1950 to 2012 (shown in the graph) reveal a huge advance in leafing dates over this half-century, with the very early springs from the 1990s being evident. Climate change shortens the winters.

Data collected by Jean Combes (Image Credit: The Woodland Trust)

Data collected by Jean Combes (Image Credit: The Woodland Trust)

The citizen science administrator with Nature’s Calendar, Kylie Knight says, “We write seasonal reports about the data collected through Nature’s Calendar, and many research academics have used the data for their studies. We also have a PhD student on the team, Christine Tansey who will be working with us for the next few years.”

The most recently published results date from the winter of 2013. In the report, a member of the Nature’s Calendar conservation team Sian Atkinson writes that spring 2013 was the coldest for the UK since 1962, and the fifth coldest in a series since 1910. Comparing these findings to the Hadley Centre’s records for mean Central England Temperature, (a dataset that began in 1659), shows that there were only 11 years in the whole series in which the mean temperature for March was colder.

Knight notes that currently, “the most exciting aspect of Nature’s Calendar is our collaboration with the British Science Association to find out how fast spring moves. We are asking the public to look out for some key species including first sightings of ladybirds, orange tip butterflies and the first leaves budding from oak trees. We will use this information to figure out how fast spring sweeps across the country.”

Nature’s Calendar has two seasons, spring runs from January to June and autumn from July to December. This spring, British Science Week took place from March 13 through March 22. The period was used to promote Nature’s Calendar’s work with the British Science Association to find the answer to the question–‘How fast does spring move?’ If you live in the UK and are  interested in helping answer that question as you take those early morning walks or weekend hikes, please consider signing up and annotating the oak buds in your neck of the woods, or the first orange tip butterflies that brighten your path.

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Nature’s Notebook: Through the Eyes of a Citizen Scientisthttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/natures-notebook-citizen-science/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/natures-notebook-citizen-science/#comments Mon, 30 Mar 2015 09:00:11 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11170 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 […]

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Bobcat in Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico.  Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

Bobcat in Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico. Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

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.

Across the United States, people like me are using the citizen science program Nature’s Notebook as a way to engage with the plants and animals they encounter daily or easily in a favorite natural area—a way to fall more in love with the world, even as we help track a changing world and the effects of global warming. What trees are budding when? What birds are migrating? What insects have emerged? Sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network, Nature’s Notebook has over 6,000 volunteers recording the life cycle or phenology of some 900 species. Eventually this continent-wide project hopes to combine its data with similar programs like Project Budburst and Journey North.

The Box Elder (Acer negundo)  Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

The Box Elder (Acer negundo) Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

The protocol in Nature’s Notebook is to choose and tag individual plants and check them at least once a week for young leaves, increasing leaf size, flower buds, open flowers, pollen release, fruit, and fruit drop. When I record my data online, I am further asked to estimate: “What percentage of the canopy has leaves (5–24%? 25–49? 50–74%?)?” And: “How many flower buds are present (11–100? 101–1,000? 1,000–10,000?)?” Some questions read like the dreaded word problem in a math class: “What percentage of all fresh flowers (buds plus unopened plus open) on the plant are open? For species in which individual flowers are clustered in flower heads, spikes, or catkins (inflorescences), estimate the percentage of all individual flowers that are open.” Examining a plant can take some time, which is why I have learned to tag only a few trees and shrubs. One of the great advantages of Nature’s Notebook is being able to design your personal study program. You can spend long afternoons out in the field, sun-kissed and nature-besotted, or you can organize for yourself a small project that only takes an hour or so a week.

This spring is my third year with my selected plants. Phenology is too dull a word for what is happening here. For how I must search along a stem for the smallest of leaves, peer into the heart of a bud, and rub my fingers against a catkin. This is one-to-one, a real conversation, me and this catkin, me and this honey mesquite. Moreover, as I enter into the life of this particular tree, I become aware of its larger life—the insects who feed from and pollinate its flowers, the small mammals like mice and rabbits who eat the sweet crunchy beans. With my close-focusing binoculars, I watch two lizards on the tree’s trunk, bobbing and weaving in dispute, defending their territories. On the leaves of a nearby globe mallow, I admire the stunning beauty of a leaf beetle, Calligrapha serpentina, its wing covers a metallic emerald-green with black markings or “writings” vaguely Egyptian and hieroglyphic. Above me, white cumulus clouds sail the seas of a perfect blue sky.

Soaptree (Yucca elata)  Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

Soaptree (Yucca elata) Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

Nature’s Notebook also has a list of animal species they would like you to document. At first—in magical thinking mode—I hoped that putting an animal on my list would increase my chance of seeing that animal. So I committed to recording information for almost every species in my area that Nature’s Notebook is interested in: American robin, American kestrel, bald eagle, bighorn sheep, black phoebe, black-chinned hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, bumblebee, cabbage white butterfly, cliff swallow, great blue heron, house wren, killdeer, monarch, mourning dove, mule deer, olive-sided flycatcher, punctured tiger beetle, raccoon, red admiral, and sandhill crane. Later, tired of checking so many “no’s” on the user-friendly online data form, I limited myself to just the animals I would most likely see or hear.

I am also on the look-out for animals that Nature’s Notebook is less interested in documenting. My backyard in southwestern New Mexico is a natural area only a few miles from the three-million-acre Gila National Forest. Black-tailed rattlesnakes are very much at home on my Nature’s Notebook walk. So are javelina, a pig-like hooved and tusked native species delightfully wedge-shaped, the adults weighing about forty pounds. From a nearby irrigation ditch, I hear the bark of an Arizona gray squirrel. A few years ago, before the population was decimated by an epidemic of rabies, I might have seen a fox. Skunk, bear, and coati walk these trails along the ditch. Occasionally, a mountain lion passes by. I’m aware of presence.

To keep track of what I see, for myself as well as for Nature’s Notebook, I now keep a small actual notebook with good paper and sturdy binding. I write down leaf size and reminders to myself: “Look up wolfberry.” My middle-aged brain has trouble absorbing new information, like the identification of an unfamiliar plant, and I notice how often leaves blur into one general category. Botanical dyslexia is something I’ve always suspected but I never had an official diagnosis. So I draw the leaves of plants as a way to remember them, learning terms like simple (a single leaf growing from the stem) and compound (more than one leaf growing on a smaller stem from the main stem), ovate to lanceolate (egg-shaped to lance-like), and serrate (saw-toothed along the margin). I sketch the triangular shape of lambsquarters, prolific in my study area, and spend a few minutes serrating the leaf margins of the exotic Siberian elm to compare with the native American elm. I draw to size some of the animal tracks in the dirt, noting the leading toe and round print of a bobcat. All this fits in in my pocket like a smartphone—only better.

Data from the program Nature’s Notebook has been used to predict the expansion of ragweed, track the invasion of buffelgrass in the Sonoran Desert, and illumine changes in arctic Alaska. I am glad to be a small part of these larger discoveries. But perhaps just as important, I am also making more intimate discoveries about myself and the place where I live. I am entering into secret lives. I am making myself at home.

 


 

 

Sharman Russel SciStarterSharman Apt Russell teaches writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and at the low-residency MFA program in Antioch University in Los Angeles.  Her recent book Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World was named by The Guardian as a top ten nature book in 2014. For more information, go to her website at www.sharmanaptrussell.com.

 

 

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Spring is the Season for Citizen Sciencehttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/spring-is-the-season-for-citizen-science/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/spring-is-the-season-for-citizen-science/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2015 04:27:25 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11166 Here are six projects in need of your help as you walk the dog, work in your garden, clean the gutters, or do spring cleaning. And check out these  new citizen science projects just added to the Project Finder on SciStarter. Cheers! The SciStarter Team iSeeChange iSeeChange has the charm of an old-fashioned almanac, partnered […]

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Photo: NPS

Photo: NPS

Here are six projects in need of your help as you walk the dog, work in your garden, clean the gutters, or do spring cleaning.

And check out these  new citizen science projects just added to the Project Finder on SciStarter.

iseehcangeiSeeChange

iSeeChange has the charm of an old-fashioned almanac, partnered with user-generated content and the social networking of our modern world. It’s where you can share observations about your environment to monitor change and compare notes with neighbors.

budburstProject BudBurst

When do the trees in your backyard leaf out? When do the wildflowers bloom? Are they earlier or later than last year? Project BudBurst needs volunteers across the United States to study phenology changes over time.

mlmpMonarch Larva Monitoring Project

The monarch butterfly population has declined drastically in the past decade and more people are needed to help study how monarchs vary in space and time. Monitor monarch eggs and larvae anywhere there is milkweed!
Get Started!

naturesnotebookNature’s Notebook

As climate change affects flora and fauna across the United States, citizen scientists are needed to study its impacts. You can choose from hundreds of plants and animals to observe and you can join regional campaigns focused on issues in your area.
Get Started!

snapshotsSnapshots in Time

Do you have wood frogs or spotted salamanders in your area? You‘ll learn soon enough if you participate in this project! Share your observations and help efforts to conserve these adorable amphibians.

naturescalendarNature’s Calendar Survey

Is your garden blooming in the U.K.? Did you see the first migratory bird of the season? Whether it’s in your backyard, local park, or farm field, scientists want to know what you‘re seeing and when.

Meet the SciStarter team at theAtlanta Science Festival 3/21-28!

Our next #CitSciChat on Twitter is Wednesday March 25th at 2-3pm ET,  moderated by Caren Cooper @CoopSciScoop and presented by @SciStarter.

If you‘d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email Jenna@scistarter.com.

Contact the SciStarter Team

Email: info@scistarter.com
Website: http://scistarter.com

Photo Credits: iSeeChange (iSeeChange), Dennis Ward (Project BudBurst), Carrie Benham (Monarch Lava Monitoring), Brian Forbes Powell (Nature’s Notebook), Peter Oxford (Snapshots in Time), USFWS (Nature’s Calendar Survey)

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White House Recognizes Importance of Citizen Sciencehttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/white-house-science-fair-recognizes-importance-of-everyday-people-advancing-science/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/white-house-science-fair-recognizes-importance-of-everyday-people-advancing-science/#comments Mon, 23 Mar 2015 14:50:23 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11152 “Citizen Science” movement gaining ground through organizations including SciStarter   PHILADELPHIA, Penn. (March 23, 2015) – Citizen science engages the public in important research, and SciStarter is leading the way for scientists, enthusiasts and students to connect and collaborate on research. Even as President Obama recognizes the intelligence and effort of students at the White […]

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“Citizen Science” movement gaining ground through organizations including SciStarter

 

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. (March 23, 2015) – Citizen science engages the public in important research, and SciStarter is leading the way for scientists, enthusiasts and students to connect and collaborate on research. Even as President Obama recognizes the intelligence and effort of students at the White House Science Fair, the White House itself is joining and supporting the citizen science movement.

The White House will showcase that anyone can participate in citizen science by committing to install a new rain gauge in the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden, becoming part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) citizen science network of over 20,000 active participants who serve as the largest source of daily precipitation data in the United States.

“We’re seeing tremendous increases in citizen science participation among both youth and adults,” said Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter and a professor at Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society.  “Citizen science has been proven to advance all areas of serious research and I’m thrilled to attend the White House Science Fair this morning where the emphasis is on education and the future; a future that will be shaped by remarkable teens including  Tiye Garret-Mills, 17, from Colorado who will be honored at the White House event this morning for developing a low cost method to identify leaves. With global citizen science projects underway to identify tree species, this may become a crucial tool. Our goal at SciStarter is to empower the public by connecting them to meaningful opportunities to engage in STEM, while providing access to the tools and resources that will enhance their experience and support their valuable contributions.”

To that end, SciStarter is joining forces with Public Lab as part of a national effort to create a new Citizen Science Tool lending library and store to enable more than 50,000 people the opportunity to participate in scientific inquiry. This library and store will broaden the scope of tools available to schools and the general public for research.  SciStarter and Public Lab are working in collaboration with the Museum of Science Boston and Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society.

Quality research is important, so SciStarter is working with STEM curriculum developers and educators from the Broward County, FL School District (the 6th largest in the country), educators from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, and a distributed network of educators to align 500 citizen science projects featured on SciStarter, with Science and Engineering Practices.  The projects will be searchable by their Practice, making it easier for educators to find the projects most suitable for their environment.

This focus on exemplary practices is a key part of SciStarter’s leadership in the newly-formed Citizen Science Association (CSA).  SciStarter and the CSA are working together to align 500 citizen science projects with Science and Engineering Practices.   The CSA will highlight exemplary practices and support the integration of STEM learning objectives within citizen science projects. To further promote integration of citizen science with STEM learning, the CSA will create a way to nominate outstanding examples of projects or resources that support citizen science for STEM learning. Exemplar projects will be highlighted on both the Citizen Science Association website and SciStarter. With support from the National Science Foundation, the CSA is being shaped by the input of over 60 Association members.

 The White House called attention to these important SciStarter citizen science initiatives through the White House Science Fair Fact Sheet distributed today.

 

About SciStarter

SciStarter aims to enable people to contribute to science through informal recreational activities and formal research efforts. The web site creates a shared space where scientists can connect with citizens interested in working on or learning about joint research projects. SciStarter currently features 1,000 searchable citizen science projects and recruits participants through partnerships with Discover Magazine, the National Science Teachers Association, Public Library of Science, WHYY/NPR, Pop Warner Youth Scholars, and more.

 

 

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Journey North: Tracking the Stories of Survival with Citizen Sciencehttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/journey-north-tracking-the-stories-of-survival-with-citizen-science/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/journey-north-tracking-the-stories-of-survival-with-citizen-science/#comments Sun, 22 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11146   It was a crisp morning following a cold night in Goleta’s Coronado Monarch Butterfly Preserve. As Luke crossed a beam that had been dropped across a swampy area, he looked up at the Eucalyptus grove and sighed quietly. “Where are the butterflies Dad,” he asked me—with one part expectation and one part disappointment. “They’re […]

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Image 3

A group of Gray Whales Count volunteers count gray whales at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara. (ianvorsterphotography.com)

 

It was a crisp morning following a cold night in Goleta’s Coronado Monarch Butterfly Preserve. As Luke crossed a beam that had been dropped across a swampy area, he looked up at the Eucalyptus grove and sighed quietly. “Where are the butterflies Dad,” he asked me—with one part expectation and one part disappointment.

“They’re meant to be roosting up there in the leafy branches,” I motioned before adding, “hopefully.” But we didn’t immediately see any monarchs in the trees—instead we noticed a few on the ground, here and there. Our eyes became accustomed to the early morning gloom, and we realized an inordinate number of brightly colored insects were scattered on the ground throughout the grove. As we walked and photographed them, stepping carefully, I realized why so many were to be found there—with a windy night, many had blown off their perch; and with it also being a cold night, they had not been able to stretch their wings and fly. They were waiting for the caress of the first rays to erase the stiffness from their limbs.

About two hours later, when the grove was bathed in a strong warm light, swarm after swarm began to burst into flight, not unlike the sudden release of a thousand balloons filled with helium. “Now I get it,” said Luke. This was what we had come to see—generations of golden-winged insects in a grove of grey-leafed trees—returned to where a generational lifecycle had begun.

This migration was what inspired Elizabeth Howard to found Journey North in 1994. Her interest piqued by the early Internet-based projects in which school children tracked human expeditions, for example across the Arctic by dogsled, or Africa by bicycle, Howard saw what she describes as “a clear and exciting parallel between these expeditions, and the wildlife migrations that cross the globe with the seasons.” Both were for her, the ultimate survival stories. “The same challenges encountered on a remote expedition—changing weather, lack of food, insufficient time—have always challenged migratory species as they travel across the globe or pass through our own backyards.”

Image 1

Monarch Butterfly on a log on a cold winter morning at Coronado Butterfly Preserve in Goleta, California. (ianvorsterphotography.com)

Journey North tallies the first-of-year sightings of hummingbirds, robins, monarchs, blooming tulips and gray whales, amongst others. This month, the Gray Whales Count  recorded 40 northbound whales on March 7 alone for a total of 266 so far, compared to 153 on for March 7, 2014. “We do not expect these numbers until maybe the fourth week in March,” says Michael Smith, the director of Gray Whales Count. “I don’t know if it is population increase, great weather and observation ability, and/or whales deciding to use this route more than in the past. It’s fun to speculate.”

Journey North offers an easy entry point to citizen science. They focus on high interest topics, a simple protocol, and real-world applications, which results in a large network of participants who are currently based at more than 50,000 sites across North America.

They have two goals—scientific research and education, and the data is used as follows:

Scientific – to document how migratory species respond to climate and the changing seasons. The long-term data set allows for valuable year-to-year comparisons, while  also providing for real-time analysis. This is particularly useful for the question-generating step of scientific inquiry. With observers spread across a large range, unusual and remarkable observations are made that raise valuable questions.

Education And Outreach -
equally important is the educational and outreach components of the project. Journey North began as a school-based initiative, but over time, as citizen science and technology grew in importance, participation spilled over to the general public. Participation is now only 30 percent school based and 70 percent non-school.

Elizabeth Howard says, “As part of our outreach effort, we produce weekly news for each featured species. The news is based on the data that citizen scientists’ contribute, as well as the descriptions and images they provide from the field. We incorporate comparative maps, graphs, and scientific analysis.” For educators, Journey North provides a rich array of resources, images, video clips, articles, activities, and lesson plans all of which enable teachers to build interdisciplinary studies into the curriculum.

Journey North has published nine papers based on the monarch butterfly, and one on the ruby-throated hummingbird. “For monarch butterflies, our findings have revealed fall migration pathways to Mexico, the rate of spring re-colonization into the breeding grounds, and the variable presence of monarchs wintering in the U.S. Gulf coast states, for example,” adds Howard.

“We also regularly provide data to scientists, resources managers, and conservation planners who need information about the spatial temporal dynamics of a species distribution.” This online effort today supports the program and lends Journey North the authority and authenticity that educators value.


Interested in tracking other migratory species? We’ve got you covered! Looking for other citizen science projects? Visit the SciStarter and use the project finder to start participating. Join thousands of other citizen scientists and contribute to science!

Find more posts like Journey North: Tracking the Stories of Survival with Citizen Science by Ian Vorster on the SciStarter Blog. Your source for citizen science and other science you can do.

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“What’s in store for citizen scientists this spring,” WHYY’s The Pulsehttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/whats-in-store-for-citizen-scientists-this-spring-whyys-the-pulse/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/whats-in-store-for-citizen-scientists-this-spring-whyys-the-pulse/#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 17:24:20 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11139 As part of SciStarter’s regular radio series with WHYY’s The Pulse, we highlight new developments in citizen science and a few projects ripe for spring! As the weather starts warming up and we all begin shedding our thick, winter coats, a crop of new citizen science projects are enticing us to get outdoors in the name […]

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Credit: Sarah Newman

Credit: Sarah Newman

As part of SciStarter’s regular radio series with WHYY’s The Pulse, we highlight new developments in citizen science and a few projects ripe for spring!

As the weather starts warming up and we all begin shedding our thick, winter coats, a crop of new citizen science projects are enticing us to get outdoors in the name of science.

Darlene Cavalier, founder of the citizen science website SciStarter and regular Pulse contributor, says a top project this spring involves paying attention to phenology, or the life cycle changes of plants and animals.

“This might be changes in the nesting habits of birds, certainly in the leafing cycle of plants near you and, specifically, looking at the timing that your lilacs bloom and when they die,” says Cavalier.

All of that information is connected in the sense that birds tend to time their nesting habits to when insects will likely be around to feed their baby birds. And those insects are dependent on certain plants to be around to survive.

Cavalier says the information that’s collected through this phenology project will eventually help inform climate assessment acts in the U.S.

As part of the Philadelphia Science Festival in April, the SciStarter crew will be at the Schuylkill Nature Center in Roxborough to get people involved in the Zombee Watch project.

“We have zombie flies that actually infect honeybees and we’ll tell you how to look for that,” says Cavalier. “It’s pretty disgusting and it’s also eerily attractive for some reason.”

But Cavalier says not all scientific research has to happen outdoors.

Read the rest of this post and listen to the radio segment.

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Finding our origins: The Genographic Project uses genetics to map the pasthttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/finding-our-origins-the-genographic-project-uses-genetics-to-map-the-past/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/finding-our-origins-the-genographic-project-uses-genetics-to-map-the-past/#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 13:00:06 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11124 Have you ever tried tracing back your family tree only to get stuck at great great Grandpa Jim? Are you curious about who your ancestors were and where they might have come from? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out National Geographic’s The Genographic Project. Not only will you learn about your lineage but […]

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Ancient human migration patterns. Source: National Geographic.

Ancient human migration patterns. Source: National Geographic.

Have you ever tried tracing back your family tree only to get stuck at great great Grandpa Jim? Are you curious about who your ancestors were and where they might have come from? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out National Geographic’s The Genographic Project. Not only will you learn about your lineage but you’ll have the opportunity to contribute to our scientific understanding of the human story.

“The Genographic Project is one of the first projects to use genetics to trace human migration patterns,” says Miguel Vilar, a molecular anthropologist and Genographic’s Science Manager.  Molecular anthropology, or anthropological genetics, uses modern DNA to understand the history and evolution of the human species. While most of our DNA is a combination of our paternal and maternal DNA, there are certain pieces of DNA that remain unchanged from generation to generation. Sometimes, a mutation occurs in these DNA segments and this mutation gets passed down unmixed to subsequent generations.

“We can use the mutations in these genetic markers to calculate how populations are related and estimate when populations might have diverged.  The more mutations two populations share, the more closely related they are,” says Vilar.  “Through this process we can retrace our past as far as 150,000 years, or roughly 5,000 generations.”

To build this large scale family tree the researchers need to collect DNA. This is where the public comes in.

The Genographic Project developed a genetic testing kit called Geno 2.0. The kit analyzes specific regions of maternal mitochondrial DNA, paternal Y-chromosome DNA, and bi-parental autosomal DNA searching for ancestry rich information. This differs from other popular genetic kits which may analyze an individual’s whole genome for trait information like eye color or medical information. With a simple cheek swab and a few weeks time, the Geno 2.0 analysis will give you a report telling you about the migration patterns of your paternal and maternal lineage, and the percentages of your geographic origins. The analysis can even tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you carry. Neanderthals briefly coexisted with early humans and apparently intermingled from time to time. “People of European ancestry have as much as 2-3% Neanderthal DNA in their genome. While people of African descent have much less because Neanderthals evolved outside of Africa and never traveled back to Africa,” says Vilar.

Sample report from the Geno 2.0 kit. Source National Geographic.

Sample report from the Geno 2.0 kit. Source National Geographic.

When you purchase the kit, you have the option to donate your results to the project’s DNA database. DNA information, combined with additional hereditary information you provide in a questionnaire, helps the researchers build the human species family tree. All information is stored anonymously.

Proceeds from kit sales fund research of and conservation efforts for indigenous and traditional groups. These are groups who have been relatively isolated throughout history and whose DNA might hold unique and interesting information. These groups are also less likely to become involved in the project on their own. Proceeds also help fund the Genographic Legacy Fund, that awards grants to community-led cultural conservations projects. Over a hundred grants have been award so far.

In addition to the research, The Genographic Project is supportive of science education and its website has lot of interesting information about the science of human evolution and the science behind the project. There are special resources to help educators including school projects, videos and classroom materials. Educators can also apply for discounts on the Geno 2.0 kits.

Since its start in 2005, The Genographic Project has received substantial interest. Presently, the project is shifting focus towards data analysis, with new and interesting results shared on the project’s blog and newsletter. But there is a lot of data to sort through. The project developers hope to create a managed forum for citizen scientists to help with analysis. In the meantime, interested researchers and citizen scientists are welcome to contact the team at to apply for access to the data.

If you are interested in learning more about your own background, want to know how to contribute, or are curious about our human origins visit The Genographic Project.


Interested in tracking other migratory species? We’ve got you convered! (hyperlink ‘covered’ to the migrations newsletter post on the relevant platform, for e.g discover’s is herehttp://blogs.discovermagazine.com/citizen-science-salon/2015/03/09/spring-forward-track-migrations-citizen-science/! Looking for other citizen science projects? Visit the SciStarter and use the project finder to start participating. Join thousands of other citizen scientists and contribute to science!

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The Next Big Drug Discovery Could Come From a Scoop of Soil in Your Backyardhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/the-next-big-drug-discovery-could-come-from-a-scoop-of-soil-in-your-backyard/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/the-next-big-drug-discovery-could-come-from-a-scoop-of-soil-in-your-backyard/#comments Wed, 18 Mar 2015 08:00:53 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11122 Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Dr Robert H. Cichewicz. Director of the University of Oklahoma, Institute for Natural Products Applications and Research Technologies (INPART). Dr Cichewicz leads the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program which is focused on translating natural products into therapeutic leads to combat cancer, infectious diseases, and other unmet medical needs. Visit the project page […]

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Scoop it up for Citizen Science! (Image Credit: Pat Dumas / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Scoop it up for Citizen Science! (Image Credit: Pat Dumas / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Dr Robert H. Cichewicz. Director of the University of Oklahoma, Institute for Natural Products Applications and Research Technologies (INPART). Dr Cichewicz leads the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program which is focused on translating natural products into therapeutic leads to combat cancer, infectious diseases, and other unmet medical needs. Visit the project page on SciStarter to start participating and join thousands of other citizen scientists! You can also find other projects in our database through the project finder!

Do you remember what is was like to be five years old? I don’t, but I get a pretty good idea from watching my children.

There are two things that strike me when watching them. First, we all start off as a scientist at heart. There are innumerable questions to be asked and answered. Each day is filled with question marks, big and small, about how and why the world works that way that it does. Second, at some level, we all love dirt. More than just the opportunistic digging and poking of fingers into the dirtiest possible places, children embrace dirt and regularly don it like an essential fashion accessory. At some level, I believe that we have all retained some aspect of those characteristics in our grownup selves. And although adult society (and our mothers) might chide us for being too nosey with endless questions and too messy based on the dirt under our fingernails, there are simple ways that we can still embrace our inner child.

Robert Cichewicz, University of Oklahoma

Robert Cichewicz, University of Oklahoma

One of these ways is to join our Citizen Science Soil Collection Program.

It is estimated that there are 1.5-5 million fungi on Earth, but only a handful have ever been studied. The fungi make secondary metabolites known as natural products. Many of these compounds have found important applications in modern medicine as antibiotics, cholesterol-lowing medications, and as immunosuppressants.

Researchers in our lab at the University of Oklahoma culture microorganisms, in particular fungi, from soil samples. We examine fungi from samples submitted by citizen scientists and test the compounds that they make for the ability to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells and stop infectious organisms from spreading. We also work with a network of collaborators who investigate the fungal natural products for additional therapeutic uses.

We are hoping that everyone who can, will help us by embracing their innate curiosity (and love of dirt) and send us a soil sample today. You can make a difference. Participation in the program is free and only requires a few moments of your time. As citizen scientists, you can be a part of the process working toward the development of new and effective treatments for many of today’s ailments. Although the process to creating a drug is a long and difficult journey, it has to start somewhere and that place is your backyard.

Request a free soil collection kit and reconnect with your inner youth. Go poke around under that rotting tree, look in the overgrowth behind the shed, and check out Fido’s favorite spot in the yard. In other words, ask yourself where you think those amazing fungi are lurking and if you cannot make up your mind, request a second kit!  In this program, not only are questions encouraged, but they are required. On top of this, you get to play in the dirt! Or as we say in our program “Get your hands dirty. Make a difference.”

So go ahead, scoop it up for citizen science!

Find more posts like The Next Big Drug Discovery Could Come From a Scoop of Soil in Your Backyard by Arvind Suresh (Editor) on the SciStarter Blog. Your source for citizen science and other science you can do.

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Are Food Deserts also Food Monocultures? Proposing a Citizen Science Project in Urban Ecologyhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/are-food-deserts-also-food-monocultures-proposing-a-citizen-science-project-in-urban-ecology/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2015/03/are-food-deserts-also-food-monocultures-proposing-a-citizen-science-project-in-urban-ecology/#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 02:31:48 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=11118 Editor’s Note: This is a two-part post, a version of which first appeared on the author’s blog. Drive through the United States, and one thing you will notice is a high degree of repetition in the scenery. Highways cross through large fields of near-identical corn and soy crops, punctuated by towns containing a similarly small set […]

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Corn - King of Crops. But is it good for a healthy food distribution ecosystem? Image: Pixabay (Public Domain CC0)

Corn – King of Crops. But is it good for a healthy food distribution ecosystem? Image: Pixabay (Public Domain CC0)

Editor’s Note: This is a two-part post, a version of which first appeared on the author’s blog.

Drive through the United States, and one thing you will notice is a high degree of repetition in the scenery. Highways cross through large fields of near-identical corn and soy crops, punctuated by towns containing a similarly small set of franchises. This is not an easy knock on the cultural blandness of contented societies but rather, I suspect, two factors deeply connected with our path to near-limitless calories.

For the first time in history our species has achieved the feat of having more overweight people than those who go hungry. How we got here is an interesting story combining the rise of the technology needed to run large-scale farms with agricultural policies geared towards the production of cheap staple crops (For a good introduction to the topic my favorite is the documentary King Corn.). What sounds strange, at least at first, is that the issue of malnourishment has not declined in a similar fashion. This is an immediate result of improvements made in the availability of cheap, though not necessarily nutritious, calories.

The areas where this discrepancy lives has a name: food deserts.The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as

Urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

An area qualifies as a food desert, according to the USDA if it meets the following two criteria:

  1. They qualify as “low-income communities”, based on having: a) a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, OR b) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income; AND
  2. They qualify as “low-access communities”, based on the determination that at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of non-metropolitan census tracts).

If you’re interested in seeing if you live in a food desert check the USDA’s map here.

Think of the word ‘desert’. In a standard ecological sense it is a place which lacks access to significant water. With food deserts the name is somewhat of a misnomer as there is still plenty of food available from fast food restaurants and convenience stores. It would however be more appropriate to describe them as ‘nutrient deserts’.

This brings up a couple of interesting questions.

With a lack of nutrients is there a corresponding lack of choice? Do the same monocultures (corn and soy) which show up in our production of cheap food also show up in the venues available for its consumption?

 

Why are these questions important?

Data about nutrient availability and food choices, especially when mapped, would be of great use for both public policy and commercial applications as well as pure research.  For example, anyone planning to move could compare prospective homes based on the nutritional profile of the neighborhood in much the same way people currently use WalkScore for transport accessibility and Zillow for property value trends.  For both urban planners and researchers it could be helpful to visualize the food infrastructure of cities as ecosystems so as to better spot the factors related to the appearance and persistence of food deserts.

This could lead to whole new set of questions. For example, do places with low level of food venue diversity, those dominated by a few franchises, tend to have populations with less access to nutritious food and more vulnerable to external supply shocks? One would then expect to see a low level of food distribution diversity, but would this then be tied to its quality and availability? Would this diversity in turn have anything to do with the income of the area? It could be reasonably argued that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to external shocks as niches vacated by one extinction could be filed by similar species.

These challenges are part of the nascent field of urban ecology. But how do go about collecting the data required to tackle them?

 

A framework for evaluating the food distribution ecosystem

To answer the question about nutrient deserts, we will need to choose the appropriate framework to collect data. Below I propose one such method.

First, we define a metric which could quantify the diversity of food sources in a community. Second, we compare this diversity metric to the median income of the community and to its access nutritious food. Without positing any cause and effect at this point it would be possible to test if communities which could be called food (nutrient) deserts would also tend to have a low diversity in the sources for nutritious food.

The second metric can be taken from already existing data sets, such as those generated by the USDA. For the first metric we have a concept which we can borrow from ecology: the Shannon index. Let’s take a small detour to discuss this important concept before turning our focus back to food deserts.

Equation for the Shannon Index

Equation for the Shannon Index

Unpacking this equation the variables are as follows:

  • H is the Shannon index, also known as the Claude-Shannon entropy of a system. Entropy, in general, is a measure of how much information it takes to describe a system. It is also a good way to describe the complexity (entropy) of a system. For example, if one has an image file which is 480 pixels on a side and completely filled with the same shade of red it would be easy to describe the file with a brief description of the image dimensions and the fill color, thus giving the image a low measure of entropy. A similarly sized section of the Mona Lisa has a far higher measure of entropy as it would take far more information to describe the image in sufficient detail. Thus, the more complex a system, the larger the Shannon index. In applying this formula to describing the diversity of ecosystems one will find that diverse ecosystems, such as coral reefs, will tend to have high entropies and that ecosystems dominated by large numbers of a few species, such as polar oceans, tend to have low entropies.
  • i is an index running from 1 to R. In an ecosystem the number R describes how many species there are.
  • pi is the population of species i. This is determined by counting, or more often estimating, the population of the species in an ecosystem.

To give a few examples of how to use this formula consider a simple ecosystem with 100 brine shrimp, 900 bacteria, and 9,000 pieces of algae. The total number of organisms is 100+900+9,000 = 10,000. The fraction of the overall population covered by brine shrimp is therefore 100/10,000=0.01, the bacteria cover a fraction of 900/10,000=0.09, and the algae cover the remaining 0.90. Calculating the Shannon index for this ecosystem based on the formula above,

H = -0.01*ln(0.01) + -0.09*ln(0.09) + -0.90*ln(0.90) = 0.358

How would this then compare to a hypothetical ecosystem where we had 100 species, each of which took up an equal share (0.01) of the population? In that case our entropy for the ecosystem would be:

H = -0.01*ln(0.01) + -0.01*ln(0.01) + …. + -0.01*ln(0.01) = 4.61

As you can see, the second system is far more complex than the first one. These examples are far simpler cases than would typically be encountered in nature, but they demonstrate how we can succinctly differentiate diverse and homogenous ecosystems using the Shannon index.

But how does this relate to the food distribution ecosystem and what does all this have to do with citizen science? In the next post, I will discuss just that.

 

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