A recently retired private lands biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission — a mentor of mine — once said something like, “If you would have told me 30 years ago that I would be counting regal fritillary butterflies, I would have told you to go home.”
I did not hear much after that. I immediately went into daydream mode, imagining this 40-year career veteran prancing around a patch of prairie with a butterfly net.
Violets are the larval host plant for the regal fritillary butterfly. If we want to understand how our management practices on a hay meadow are affecting these species, we need data. There are many things we have yet to discover and understand in the world of conservation. There is neither the time nor the resources available for much of this missing data. There is something we everyday citizens and nerds of varying hobbies can do to help. It is brought to us in the form of “citizen science.”
Citizen science is an opportunity for individuals, students, community groups — anyone — to participate in real scientific investigation. You can further our understanding of the world around us by being a part of producing relevant research. You participate by monitoring, collecting data or interpreting results.
Projects generally are developed by professional scientists, researchers, academics or conservation groups. Projects can be local or global in reach, relying on the observations of hundreds to thousands of volunteer citizen scientists.
In order for observations or data to be used for scientific research, all data must be collected in the same way. Project creators develop clear, user-friendly protocols to follow. Project websites provide downloadable resources, lesson plans, frequently asked questions and much more. Smartphone apps allow you to upload your data simply and quickly.
Citizen science has a long history, reaching back to the days when investigation of the natural world only could be afforded to those who had the money or time to do so. Charles Darwin was not a scientist but a “gentleman naturalist.” Gregor Mendel, who discovered the hereditary traits of peas, was a monk.
Scientific investigation was not always a career path, but rather a luxury. One of the earliest citizen science projects increased our understanding of ocean tides by using the observations of thousands of volunteers in nine different countries — in 1835.
The following are a few noteworthy citizen science projects.
The Lost Ladybug Project: Collect ladybugs, identify and upload pictures to understand the decline of native ladybug populations.
Monarch Larval Monitoring Project: Search milkweeds for monarch larvae to better understand their distribution and abundance, informing and inspiring conservation efforts.
Firefly Watch: Monitor fireflies from your own backyard to help understand their geographical distribution and declining populations.
Feeder Watch: Count backyard feeder birds to understand changes in bird distribution and abundance across the nation.
If you want to be a volunteer citizen scientist, visit scistarter.com. Whatever it is that holds your interest there is probably a project where you can contribute.