By Emily Lewis December 1st, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Comment 1
The monarch butterfly is a remarkable species. Each year these insects migrate in a similar pattern to birds from colder to warmer climates as the seasons change, often returning to the same overwintering sites every year. Unlike birds, however, no single monarch lives long enough to make the whole migration, so the journey occurs across multiple generations, adding to the complexity and incredible nature of the phenomenon. There are two main groups of monarchs in North America that are distinguished by their migration routes: the eastern group spends its spring and summer in eastern or central U.S and overwinters in Mexico, while the western group lives in central California and surrounding states for most of the year, overwintering on the California coast. Although these two groups are the same species, they are studied independently, as different factors affect their life cycles and migrations.
The Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates including insects, has been studying the western monarch population for nearly two decades through a citizen science project called the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. The project asks volunteers to travel to monarch overwintering sites on the California coast and count the butterflies that are present. Sarina Jepsen from the Xerces society describes that the project is “really an extraordinary effort” because of the sheer number of monarchs and their broad distribution across the California coastline. She notes that the project provides “the primary information” the society has to understand annual changes in the monarch population.
So far, the count has provided scientists with two important pieces of information. The first is that the monarch population has declined dramatically over the last 15 years – on average, only 10% of monarchs are returning to their overwintering sites compared to 1997. A recent study has linked this decline in part to climate change, which affects the monarch’s primary food source and mating ground, the milkweed plant. The second piece of information from the count, as Jepsen describes, is a “spatial picture of how the monarchs are doing and areas that can be prioritized for conservation projects.” Another factor in the monarch decline is the loss or degradation of over wintering sites, so a detailed picture of their distribution in the winter is critical to maintaining the remaining sites that these butterflies use.
Although many of the people participating in the project have been dedicated for a number of years, the Xerces Society is always looking for new volunteers to join in the count. Jepsen asserts that for new participants helping out, “It’s our hope that they’ll develop an appreciation of monarch butterflies and a desire to work towards their conservation.” The count takes place for three weeks around the Thanksgiving holiday, so it’s a great activity to burn off some of those extra holiday calories while aiding in the conservation of these incredible insects.
Reference: Xerces Society
Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes catalysts for synthetic fuels on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase, emilyannelewis.com.
By Lily Bui November 30th, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Comment
Remember the game Mouse Trap? For those of you not familiar with it, Mouse Trap is a board game in which players build a contraption, using various tools and materials, in order to capture a toy mouse on the run. Players often build creative, elaborate traps that operate in various stages, with each distinct stage setting off a another. The game is based on the concept behind Rube-Goldberg machines, devices that perform a very simple task but require an elaborate chain reaction to operate between start and finish. Just like in Rube-Goldberg machines, the value of Mouse Trap is very much in the journey, not the destination.
Now, imagine an even larger version of this game, without the mouse. This is the MIT Museum’s annual Friday After Thanksgiving: Chain Reaction event. Aptly shortened to F.A.T. for the Friday After Thanksgiving, the event is an innovative way to get families out and about after Thursday night’s collective feasting. This year, the Chain Reaction took place at the Rockwell Cage Gymnasium on MIT’s campus and was attended by approximately 2,000 people.
Here’s how it works. Each year, the MIT Museum invites its community to join the event as spectators or participants. Participants and teams build individual sections of a larger chain reaction. The aim is to be as creative as possible, and believe me when I say that participants take this creative license very seriously. Upon strolling around the basketball court-sized area set aside for the entire machine, I spotted everything from action figures, straws, water balloons, Arduino robots, monkey wrenches, bicycle wheels, legos, Daleks, and yes–even mouse traps.
Because the event is open to anybody and everybody, participants every year range from Girl Scout troops to artists and engineers, from MIT clubs to high schools and family teams. Teams have also come from as far away as Michigan and California to contribute. This year, artist/inventor Arthur Ganson and local artist/MIT alumnus Jeff Lieberman both emceed the event.
The F.A.T. Chain Reaction event is not only a creative way to get the family together during the Thanksgiving holiday season, but it’s also an opportunity for kids (ages one to ninety-two) to engage and experiment with the basics of engineering. Who knows? Perhaps participating could set off a chain reaction that results in even more collaborative citizen science in your future.
You can view a live video of the 2012 Chain Reaction below (2013 video forthcoming):
Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. 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. She currently works in public media at WGBH-TV and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Boston, MA. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui.
By Ian Vorster November 26th, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Comment
Dig into this fabulous Thanksgiving menu of citizen science projects you can do between dinner and dessert!
“It’s turkey-time!” Those words mean different things to different people—birdwatchers look forward to sighting hens with poults in the spring, hunters raise their glasses when turkey season opens, researchers foresee the final compilation of a summer citizen science count, while you and I look forward to a bird in the oven on Thanksgiving Day.
It probably raises all of these considerations, and more for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), who host a wild turkey count—the Summer Sighting Survey—every year. The data are compiled and inform a management plan, which is coincidentally updated just before Thanksgiving. The plan is primarily geared toward the “public use of turkeys” which is for hunting, but also bird watching, wildlife photography and general enjoyment.
Thanks to the efforts of the DEC and similar agencies in other states, birdwatchers and hunters don’t have to go far to see wild turkeys these days, but that hasn’t always been true. Just over a century ago, wild turkeys had vanished from New York State because of uncontrolled hunting and the clearing of forests for farms. Now they’re back, and the DEC welcomes citizen scientists who want to help make sure the turkey population remains healthy.
For much of the last fifty years, the Department’s wild turkey management program has focused on successful restoration of the turkey. To do this, conservation managers had to delineate a wild turkey range in New York and trap turkeys for transfer to those areas. They also had to set hunting regulations and develop relationships with a new constituent who had not traditionally been part of conservation efforts—the wild turkey hunting enthusiast.
To help gauge the success of restoration efforts, and to inform the management plan, the DEC launched the Summer Sighting Survey in 1996, with staff and volunteers reporting turkeys they saw during the month of August. They selected that month because poults are large enough to be easily seen but are still noticeably smaller than the hen. In addition, the second or third cutting of hay is being harvested and turkeys are more visible in fields. Observers reported the number of adult toms, adult hens, and poults in each flock, observed during as they went about their daily routines. These reports are used as an indication of production, or poults per hen, for each year.
With the citizen scientist flock now comprising both birdwatchers and hunters—anyone can participate, this information provides a reasonable level of confidence for the Department to identify population trends, and to provide dependable information for an outreach program. Michael Schiavone, a wildlife biologist with the DEC said, “The data gathered by citizen scientists are used in a variety of ways, depending on what we are trying to do. For the summer count we look at the potential of the landscape to support turkeys, and to set hunting seasons. Where we see good habitat, we can expect better production.”
The data allow them to monitor trends in the turkey population for better management, and “to provide information of interest to the public.” Environmental factors such as availability of food and habitat can cause turkey populations to fluctuate greatly from year to year, which can influence the survey results. Due to these annual fluctuations, at least three to five years of data are needed to identify real population trends.
Summer 2013 Results
In 2013, 338 hen flocks were counted, with reproductive success at about 2.7 poults per hen. This is lower than 2012, and is below the 10‐year average of around three poults per hen. (Production improved from 2009 to 2012 after the low observed in 2009, but four of the past six years have seen production below the ten‐year average.)
About 20 percent of the hen‐flocks observed in 2013 did not have poults, which is slightly lower than last year, but similar to the 10-year trend. Turkeys in regions with more favorable weather may still experience low nest and brood success, due to poor habitat quantity and quality—the birds also need decent brood‐rearing habitat. Continuous forest will likely produce less broods than mixed woodland.
Schiavone describes the ideal turkey habitat as, “Half wooded, with an even mix over the remainder of abandoned fields and active agriculture.” In reality turkeys in the Northeast have three critical habitat needs, which may be in short supply: 1) good nesting habitat, 2) good brood rearing habitat and 3) a good winter food source. If these three needs are met, interspersed with mature woodland, there is a far greater chance of having wild turkeys in the area. The only other component that could be added is a late summer/fall food source. The primary benefit of this would be to hold the birds for your enjoyment.
Historic Decline and Recovery
At the time of European colonization in the early 1600s, wild turkeys were abundant and widely distributed. By the mid-1840s, however, they had been virtually eliminated. In 1909, it was reported that there were no wild turkeys in New York. The main cause was habitat destruction—by excessive logging and intensive farming, coupled with unrestricted hunting by early settlers. Habitat destruction is a major contributing factor to decline of all wildlife species. By 1850, more than 60 percent of the land in New York was farmed. This trend continued, and by the late 1800s, nearly 75 percent of New York State was cleared of trees.
But that trend reversed because after the Civil War, many New York farms were abandoned as agriculture shifted to better land to the west. Abandoned farm fields, gradually reverted to woodlands, and by the 1940s much of the southern tier of New York was again forested and could support turkeys. Today upwards of 60 percent of New York State is forested. In southwestern New York, wild turkeys from Pennsylvania subsequently established healthy breeding populations and grew rapidly.
In 1959, the Conservation Department began to trap wild turkeys in southwestern New York for release in suitable unoccupied habitats elsewhere in the state. This facilitated more rapid expansion than would occur naturally. Over the next 35 years, the Department moved nearly 1,400 birds within New York State, which proved to be an overwhelming success. The DEC has also sent almost 800 turkeys to Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Delaware, and the Province of Ontario, helping to re-establish populations throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
Count Those Turkeys
Even though the 2013 count has taken place, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will host a spring count in 2014. You can also keep a lookout for turkeys as you hike, snowshoe or ski your local trail during the winter, in preparation for the spring count. A number of other states, including South Carolina, Missouri, and New Hampshire also operate citizen science turkey surveys. Check online for a spring turkey survey in your state. You can also participate in the Thanksgiving Day Bird Count this week!
Print out a survey form here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/sumturksurv.pdf
Summer 2013 turkey survey results here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/summertkysurvrpt13.pdf
Images (from top): Creative Commons, NY Department of Environmental Conservation
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.
By Lily Bui November 24th, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Comment
This is a guest post by Karen McDonald. When not writing her blog The Infinite Spider, Karen is a guest blogger, curriculum developer, science content editor, and outdoor educator with over thirteen years in informal science education. She has an MS in Biology and a BS in Environmental Science and Philosophy. Currently she works for Smithsonian and contracts for Discovery Channel.
When you consider the field of citizen science you probably think of it as something you do by collecting data, taking pictures, finding plants or animals, or uploading sightings. There’s a new form of citizen science emerging called a “thought experiment.” You may be familiar with thought experiments like that of “Schrödinger’s Cat” or Einstein’s “Chasing a Beam of Light” which use theoretical reasoning to solve a problem. However, thought experiments may also be applied to biological science because you are considering a hypothesis, principle, or theory and its consequences as it applies to a scientific application. This theory may or may not be implemented. The big difference between traditional citizen science and a thought experiment is that thought experiments do not use direct observation or experiments, they rely completely on theory. Thought experiments also have the advantage that they can be done from anywhere, which make them accessible to anyone who might be interested in trying them out. You can do them in a classroom, on the metro, or on an exercise bike.
A Bit of Background for This Thought Experiment
The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Marine Invasions Research Lab, located in Edgewater, MD, along with a field branch in Tiburon California have teamed up with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Alaska Southeast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and San Francisco State University to monitor a creatively named species of invasive brackish water tunicate called “rock vomit,” or Didemnum vexillum. It’s thought that D. vexillum originated in Japan, but now it’s found all over the world and it’s an aggressive invader. SERC scientists first found it growing in the bay of Sitka Alaska in 2010 during a bioblitz.
Rock vomit is a big problem for native habitats and commercial fishermen because it grows in mats (in quickly moving water) and long strands (with low water movement) and covers everything in sight. This includes fishing nets, lines, docks, ship hulls, and all living sessile (non-moving) creatures on the bottom. Rock vomit literally blankets sponges, anemones, bryozoans, scallops, oysters, and mussels. Here is the USGS official page with images and descriptions.
How Does This Citizen Science Thought Project Work?
SERC scientists have been trying to determine how rock vomit spreads and what factors might influence its demise. You can read more about their work using treatments of fresh water, extremely salty water, lack of oxygen, acetic acid, and bleach in a controlled field setting as they try to find out what might work to control it. These researchers are asking you, as citizen scientists, to participate in a thought experiment project to help come up with a way to control rock vomit based on their findings. On the page listed above they give you some factors to consider such as treatment area, containment, limiting mortality of other species and outside the area, wind, waves, and tides. Your job is to think about these variables and to design a theoretical solution to the problem of this invasive species. Remember, the solution may or may not be implemented but your thoughts and theories could help solve a major invasive species problem!
If you would like to submit an idea please send your proposal to Monaca Noble (Noblem@si.edu) by December 16th. The lab will choose the best solution and post the winner on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center website for Invasive Species.
If you’re looking for some scientific inspiration, try this paper:
McCann, LD, K Holzer, IC Davidson, GV Ashton, and GM Ruiz. 2013. Promoting invasive species control and eradication in the sea: options for managing the tunicate invader Didemnum vexillum in Sitka, Alaska. Marine Pollution Bulletin. Available online.
By Melinda T. Hough November 22nd, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Comment
Dig into even more Thanksgiving projects with your friends and family!
Imagine: After months of treacherous sailing across the open ocean, skirting coral reefs and rocky shores, you alight upon lush tropical islands greeted by enticing aromas, unknown species, and a symphony of bird song…
Four years into her circumnavigation of the globe, the HMS Beagle carrying 24-year-old Charles Darwin landed in the Galápagos Islands forever changing our understanding of biodiversity and species evolution through natural selection. The Galápagos Islands are famous for their vast numbers of endangered and endemic species, rich biodiversity, and isolated Pacific location. Yet, invasive species and human development threaten their existence. Could exploring Darwin’s living laboratory be as simple as a virtual visit?
Research, as well as travel, in the Galápagos Islands is difficult due to its remote location and expense. In Darwin for a Day, a partnership between the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), Google Earth Outreach Team, Catlin Seaview Survey and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), citizen scientists can virtually explore the best-preserved tropical archipelago in the world from the comfort of home.
Using innovative technology, Google Maps surveyed the Galápagos Islands and their marine environments in May 2013 to create a virtual, 360-degree experience that can be explored through the web. Grab your Darwin hat and moleskin as you select the island you wish to explore, zoom in to street view (much as you do when getting directions to your local pizza place or coffeeshop) then document the unique natural history by describing what you see – plant, animal, reptile, bird, fish. Just as real-life scientists record their data, observations can range from simple descriptions to detailed scientific names and technical information. Images and data are shared with CDF scientists and the iNaturalist community to help characterize the islands, monitor species diversity, and record changes to these delicate ecosystems.
“This is a unique opportunity to spearhead technology science for conservation and public awareness about the importance of the Galápagos ecosystems in a changing world.” according to Daniel Orellana, CDF’s head of Human Systems Research. “The outcomes of the project will allow CDF and GNPD to count on valuable information for research and the continued conservation of the Galápagos Islands.”
Since its launch in September 2013, Darwin for a Day has recorded nearly 600 observations of over 100 different species. As more citizen scientists participate, the data will be used to develop conservations strategies ranging for educational programs to responsible land management and ecotourism strategies without harming these unique ecosystems.
After feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie, why not make a date with Darwin for a Day and explore the exotic and far off wonders of the Galápagos Islands? The blue-footed booby and Galápagos sea lion send their thanks.
This project is also part of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020.
Images: Charlesjsharp & Google
Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.