Archive for the ‘Insects’ tag
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Editors Note: This post was written by Aditi Joshi, a freelance science writer and a new contributor at SciStarter
As a kid, I avoided houses that had spider decorations during Halloween. Even today, I find spiders scary. Spiders add an extra ounce of spookiness to Halloween. Spiders might be scary for some, but they’ve always fascinated Dr. Paula Cushing, an arachnologist (spider biologist) at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado.
Cushing hoped to get a better sense of what kinds of spiders existed around her and what role they play in the ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. To do that, she needed a map of where the spiders were and what kinds of spiders exist in the area. But an area spanning 104,000 square miles has a daunting array of spider species estimated to be over 650 in number. It wasn’t something that she or a small staff or professional scientists were going to be able to do on their own. They needed help.
Earlier, a scientist named Dr. Richard Bradley had done a project in Ohio, where he had recruited volunteers to help capture and tag spiders across his state. That project was wildly successful, and sixteen years ago, Cushing decided to follow suit with the Colorado Spider Survey.
A spider survey had never been done in Colorado before Cushing. “We started from zero spider specimen vials, and today we have a collection of over 50,000 vials,” Cushing says. Survey volunteers have identified and classified specimens from the entire Rocky Mountain region even going as far as Montana.
The project has since helped scientists understand the impact of urbanization on spiders and the ecology and distribution of spiders across Colorado. But Cushing also uses the opportunity to teach locals about their environment. Every year during the spring and summer, Cushing leads spider survey trainings for teens and adults who are interested in volunteering for the survey. She’s been able to train over eight hundred people, many of whom volunteered to help the survey grab and tag spiders.
Nina Shilodon, who’s been able to take some the lessons she’s learned in Cushing’s trainings into the classrooms, says that her adopted pet spider, Blueberry, has been able to get her kids’ attention in “spider storytelling” sessions. “When Blueberry comes crawling out she’s the one that brings the fun… whether a child is fearful or fascinated, they’re interested,” Shilodon says. And “they listen when one tells them about the different hunting styles, body parts, and environments that spiders inhabit.”
Cushing says the spider survey is a great way for people to become more intimate with biodiversity “of which otherwise one would not have been aware.”
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Image Credits: Dr. Paula Cushing, Rick Teichler
Aditi Joshi, a freelance science writer, is an expert in the field of clinical psychophysiology. She holds a PhD in Human Physiology from the University of Oregon and has published several academic papers. Apart from science, she is interested in Native American art, and art history
Live in Los Angeles county? Photograph butterflies and moths, and help scientists study climate change.
Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!“Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one…” 
In the heat of summer monsoons, butterflies accompany the paddling turtles in the lake outside my window… butterfly? Wait a minute; I remember dragonflies, not butterflies, from childhood. Nightly news reports every evening that our fragile blue marble is undergoing significant changes. Could butterflies and moths help scientists understand how living organisms adapt to climate change?
More than 174,000 species of butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, or scaly-winged insects, have been cataloged, making them some of the most successful insects to flutter across our planet. Vital to local ecosystems, butterflies and moths are important food sources and pollinators, only differing in their coloration (bold colors vs. drab monochrome) and diurnal/nocturnal range. Yet, only 236 species of butterfly have been observed in Los Angeles County.The Los Angeles Butterfly Survey, a partnership between the all-volunteer Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is working with citizen scientists to count and photographically catalogue the butterflies, and moths, found between the urban skyscrapers of southern California.
Becoming a butterfly, or moth, hunter has never been easier. Citizen scientists simply photograph, noting the date, time, and location, of their winged sighting. The photo and observations are then uploaded to the BAMONA website, where experts identify/verify the species before adding the find to their database. The data is used to develop a visual database and life history page for each species including stunning, user-submitted, photographs and maps reflecting recent sightings.
Kelly Lotts, co-founder of BAMONA, notes, “It is very easy for kids to grab cameras and to take photographs of species found where they live or at their school… Kids really enjoy being able to point to their dot on the map, to their actual photograph.”Since its launch in 2011, the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey has become an invaluable tool encouraging city dwellers to become scientists for the day. Over 628,000 butterfly and moth sightings have been recorded across all of North America; 1320 for southern California. Lotts goes on to explain, “We get a lot of data requests from scientists looking at butterflies as indicators of climate change… in 2011 and 2012, in California, there was a sighting of Hyalophora cecropia each year. This is very unusual as the Cecropia is found in the east of the Rocky Mountains.”
Citizen scientists benefit from their involvement as well. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, they are mapping local species in order to inform planting in the pollinator garden. New projects are sprouting up including the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. According to Lila Higgins, Manager of Citizen Science for the museum, “Citizen scientist are already getting so much out of their experience. They are thinking like scientists – making predictions about what they are going to find in the coming weeks. Talk about science in action.”
Why not grab a camera and enjoy the summer sun while waiting for a butterfly to flutter by?
References and Resources:
 Image courtesy Tony Maro (BAMONA submission).
 Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail
 Image courtesy Wendy Caldwell (Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles).
 Data courtesy BAMONA website.
Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of life science and helping the general public explore their world. She holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh for research into how antibiotics kill bacteria, was a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and is a published photographer. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science. Not content to stay in one place for very long, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, plotting her next epic adventure, or training for the next half marathon.
Attention all backyard explorers and rosebush whackers: this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. Your days of leading patient parents on perilous neighborhood expeditions are over. Put down that “machete.” Stop mushing the dog. Grab your merit badges. Adventure is calling!
This Friday, August 24, the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society will host their annual BioBlitz species count at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hundreds of students and thousands of local citizens will join about 200 scientists, naturalists, and explorers from around the country to collect and analyze wildlife data, transforming the forest into a massive outdoor classroom alive with curiosity and discovery.
“I am always moved by the commitment of the National Parks Service to protecting our country’s ecological diversity and sharing it with the general public,” said Daniel Edelson, Vice President for Education at National Geographic. “The BioBlitzes are…explicit strategies for preparing young people to care for their world.”
National Geographic has been “inspiring people to care about the planet” through its magazine since 1888, but it is relatively new to the business of “preparing” them to do so. With the rapid proliferation of digital media, the society saw an opportunity to provide teachers and students with the resources to learn (curricula, films, games) and the tools to take action through a more robust educational initiative, thus engaging with their audience in ways never thought possible. Can’t make it to Colorado to catch bugs, spot birds, and count elk on Friday? You can take part in the action via their Google Hangout starting at 3 PM (EST), or even plan your own BioBlitz by following their instructions.
“It’s exciting to see that other people are embracing the concept and using the resources we developed to conduct their own biodiversity research in their own parks in their own communities,” said Sean O’Connor, a BioBlitz project manager.
This year’s BioBlitz, the sixth in a series of ten leading up to the National Park Service’s Centennial in 2016, comes amidst the strain of another round of federal budget cuts and continued lack of funding for the program. As the National Park Service prepares to face the challenges ahead—political, economic, environmental, or otherwise—National Geographic aims to show its next generation of stewards why its 397 parks encompassing ver 84 million acres of land are worth preserving.
“We believe [the most important lesson] we can teach young people is how interconnected our world is,” said Edelson. “Even in our most pristine National Parks, you can’t escape the impact of human activities on the natural environment. A BioBlitz is a chance for young people to see those impacts and learn about the connections between their own actions and the health of ecosystems.”
In July of 2009, a friend and I arrived at a lake to collect water samples for work. We had worked at the lake many times, but something was different that day: several hundred dragonflies were flying over the grass.
We often saw dragonflies, but there were 50 times the usual number and they weren’t in their usual places. We knew something exciting was happening, so we jotted down notes. I returned to the lake twice to record more observations of the swarm and simply appreciate the marvel of nature that I witnessed. Then they were gone.
That experience changed me. I am an aquatic entomologist with an interest in dragonfly behavior, but that swarm captured my attention like nothing else. I needed to know more about it! I looked into the scientific literature to find answers, but discovered that little is known about dragonfly swarms.
Ever seen little points of light buzzing around outside on summer nights? Those lights – fireflies – are beetles that create light through a chemical reaction. By controlling the reaction, fireflies can turn on and off their lights. They flash light to communicate and find a mate.
Fireflies may be disappearing from some areas where they have been found in the past, so researchers are looking to citizen scientists for help understanding more about what is affecting fireflies.
Changes in the way we use land might be taking a toll on fireflies. For example, as natural landscapes are turned into lawns, fertilizers, pesticides and mowers may jeopardize fireflies, which spend daytime hours on the ground. Fireflies might also be affected by outdoor lights such as streetlights and the amount of water in the environment.
The Firefly Watch project gets the public involved collecting data about where fireflies are found. If you live east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and have ten minutes a week to look for fireflies in the evening, consider signing up as a volunteer.