Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Citizen Scientists

A little crab I drew for South Slough Reserve.  My of my favorite roles as a citizen scientist is using my art skills to help places like the reserve.
"Citizen Science."  when I first heard that term I sort of winced.  Not me!  For some reason it sounded a little phony ... I don't know why.  Just an unexplained reaction.  

I now have a very different attitude towards the term.  I am one, and proud of it.  Many other people are too.  In bits and pieces ordinary people can contribute an amazing amount of information, but only if they can find ways to share the knowledge.  Often 'citizen scientists' are part of some project.  It might be joining a group to pull noxious weeds from a local marsh; it might be a member of Audubon's annual Christmas Count; it might be as simple as leading a birding trip.  Many of my citizen science contributions are unrelated to a group effort, but they can be just as important.

I realize I've been a citizen scientist since I was a child.  I never know when the next opportunity will present itself.  I'll start with two of my very early contributions.  For both I was in grade school. 

Early spring in Wisconsin:  The ground was just starting to thaw.  We had several large anthills on our property -- maybe six inches tall and 18 inches around.  I decided to dig into one and see what I could see. I was surprised at the lack of ants, but I did find at least a half dozen small snakes hibernating in there.  Each was curled up in a little knot: garter snakes and little green snakes.  Green snakes are usually bright green, but one was brown.  My mother, a biologist, had never seen a brown colored green snake, so off to a museum it went.  

About the same time I was poking inside anthills, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin was studying the life cycle of a fluke (a parasitic flatworm).  The study involved a fluke which spends part of its life cycle in a snail and part as a parasite in sheep liver.  Somehow this researcher heard those prairie chicken biologists up in Plainfield had a little girl with an aquarium full of snails, snail eggs, and baby snails.  She was doing just fine raising snails, but the researchers were having difficulty.  So one came up to talk to me.  How did I do it?

My aquarium was an old battery jar.  Some batteries used to come in a rectangular glass container big enough to hold at least a gallon of water.  Nothing special about that.  Mine was full of aquatic plants and a little muck.  The researcher didn't look impressed.  But then I asked the researcher what he fed his snails.  Feed them?  Do you need special food to feed them? Aren't the aquatic plants in the aquarium enough?

No ..... I fed my snail little bits of cooked chicken.  I just happened on discovering that my snails started reproducing like mad when given extra protein.  That knowledge was just what the researcher needed.

This cardinal would really excite an Oregon Christmas Bird Count birder. Unfortunately it is just plastic.  Dale spotted it on a fence in Malheur Basin .... a birder's humor.  

Being a 'bird counter' on the annual Audubon Christmas Count is a well known contribution by citizen scientists. I went on my first count about 60 years ago.  Gads!  I hate to even admit that.  And my presence probably wasn't all that important, but maybe it was.  I may well have  spotted a bird that none of the adults would have spotted. 

More recently I don't think I've missed a Christmas Count in over 35 years. 

Dale should get most of the credit for one of our most significant contributions.  For years we'd heard that the only animal that can survive eating a rough-skinned newt is the common garter snake.  When we were out and about Dale paid particular attention to see if he could observe anything else eating a newt. He spent hours carefully watching what kind of salamanders a pair of great blue herons were eating.  They caught about six salamanders an hour, but never one of the numerous newts.   

Later, otter feeding on salamanders caught his attention.  It was a challenge to get a good photos to verify the species of salamander, but we did!  We could see the otter were eating rough-skinned newts.  When I telephoned the author of a reptile book he immediatly said, "But did the otter survive?"  Fortunately we felt we knew the answer to that too. As a result of our observations, researchers came to the pond.  Their research determined that newts found at higher elevations contain less toxin.  The results were published in a scientific paper.   I first blogged about our observations here: 
More recently a lot of our citizen scientist contributions have involved insects.  Digital cameras have made the insect world up-close and personal for us.  It started out when we realized we could get some beautiful photographs of dragonflies with our cameras.  Then, of course, we wondered just what dragonflies we were photographing.  That lead to looking for specific information on Oregon's dragonflies ..... and before we knew it we had verified six new county records for dragonflies in Douglas County, Oregon. 

Soon we were photographing more than just dragonflies.  We began to pay attention to butterflies, robber flies, crane flies, tachinid flies ... and not just flies.  Hymenoptera, Trichoptera, Lepidoptera, etc.   One tiny insect is called a white fly, it looks like a moth, but it is really a bug!  Insects are such a challenge!  There are less than 1000 birds in North America, but somewhere around 90,000 species of insects in N. America north of Mexico ... and a bunch more in Mexico.  Wow! 

Many insects have no common name and some are yet to be discovered.  Citizen scientists are definitely playing a role in adding knowledge to this base. One of my favorite resources for finding out what we have photographed is BugGuide.net.  Bug Guide helps with identification and has a tremendous database of what insects have been photographed, when and where.  Dale and I currently have added about 30 new 'data points' to their Oregon records.  A data point is a photographic record added to their database, but not necessarily the first record of the insect being found in Oregon.  Information like this is extremely helpful to determine how fast a new insect pest is spreading across the country; or how climate change is affecting the range of an insect. 

.... more next week on our 'bugging' adventures, i.e. our role as citizen scientists. 


  1. What a fascinating post Elva, you've certainly had a life full of nature study.

  2. Elva, you and Dale put a new spin on "Stop and smell the roses." Your photos and artwork as citizen scientists inspire us to "Stop and really see the little things." Such fun for all of us to experience and visualize what you uncover in your adventures. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Very inspiring post. Thank you for pointing out simple ways we can all help with the study and recording of nature.

  4. You two will never be bored. You have so much patience to study so much and share with us. Lucky us. You have many 'books' in you. To bad you're so busy enjoying life and discovering. :)

  5. A very interesting and inspiring post!

  6. Hi, Elva, what a lovely post and beautiful drawings! I'm sure that's why your daughter, too, loves creatures and draws nature. Best wishes, Sadami