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Citizen Science: When Observations Become Data

Citizen Science programs are a great way to learn more about nature while at the same time contributing to scientific research that can be used in multiple ways. “But I do not have scientific training,” you might say. Great news: all Citizen Science programs provide training. With many opportunities available, it's easy to find one that matches up with your interests and availability. Many do not require special equipment or even a specific time commitment. 

Here is an example: to find the bee population in Minnesota (as in: what species we have here and how common they are) would take a huge amount of time and logistics–not to mention funding– to send scientists to all areas of the state to make observations. 

But if volunteers all over the state can be recruited to survey a small section in their area and report their findings, the task is more manageable. This is what scientists at the University of Minnesota are doing with the Bee Atlas Program.

In this blog post, we are featuring Citizen Science programs that some HDT staff are currently involved with. Learn the what, who, how–not to mention the why–of each person’s experience.

iNaturalist – Photos to Data

Delaney Dahl, program assistant in Happy Dancing Turtle’s Driftless Region, has had a great experience with iNaturalist. “iNaturalist is a citizen science project that we use and promote all the time during our programs,” she said. “If we are sharing photos of animals, we like to use those submitted on iNaturalist. You are able to search by location, so you can see what wildlife has been observed in your area! I also love being able to see what has been seen in the area I am in.” 

Another aspect Delaney enjoys is how she can sometimes even help identifying species. This is because iNaturalist relies on crowdsource identifications. It’s a process where once enough other people using iNaturalist have identified an observation and come to a consensus on correct identification, that post then becomes research grade. “That means photos you take that get identified can be used by scientists to help with research,” said Delaney. “Many times this research is helping with conservation efforts of those species, so iNaturalist is a great way to catalog everything you have seen, while also protecting those species!"

But how about those just getting started, who might not be confident about even basic ID steps? "There is absolutely no risk involved in posting when you are not sure of what species it is you observed," Delaney said. "Many times I come across bumble bees that I am unfamiliar with, but I know they are a bumble bee species, so I will post my observations identified as the Apidae family. The Apidae family contains Honey Bees, Bumble Bees, and Allies. Other users will help narrow it down to species!" Delaney finds there is excitement in posting something unknown to you, and having others assist you in identifying.

"My brief tips on getting good or better at identifying species you see is to get out exploring as much as you can!" Delaney offered. "There is a lot to see and it changes each season. Keeping a nature journal can help keep what you have seen in order to look back upon." She suggests before heading out into nature, bring a few identification guide books along with you to help you identify what you are seeing. "There is pretty much a book for everything you may encounter, even scat! I also love to use the app Seek to help identify or narrow down what I am seeing right then and there!"

Speaking of apps, iNaturalist is a great app for your phone and it is also accessible online. One of the goals is mapping biodiversity across the globe. This is done with the help of users across the world, posting their observations of plants and wildlife. 

These observations are cataloged and identified by other users, and scientists - you guessed it - all across the globe! Even more exciting, the data you collect and contribute may reach beyond just the iNaturalist community.

“A feature of iNaturalist that is really interesting is the ‘Projects’ they have available for you to join,” said Delaney. There are projects for a lot of different flora & fauna across the world, from birds to bees to projects that are based on location. Your observations that apply to that project will also get uploaded in that specific spot, so users and scientists can find more exact data regarding their research. Here are just a few of the projects that Delaney posts observations to:

One of Delaney’s favorite finds on iNaturalist was when searching for the Pelecinid wasp, specifically the postings from Wisconsin. “I looked at each observation that included a photo image in search of a male Pelecinid wasp. They are very rare compared to the females, since males are not needed for females to lay their eggs. Out of 300 some pictures, only one was a male Pelecinid wasp!”

hand holding a wasp on a branch
Female Pelecinid wasp - photo by Delaney Dahl

Wasp on green oval leaf
Male Pelecinid wasp - photo from iNaturalist

Delaney clarified that this does not mean there is only one male Pelecinid wasp flying around Wisconsin–just that this is the only one that has been submitted. “My hypothesis is since they do not look as fascinating or scary, as the females do – they get posted less out of disinterest or others may not know what they are looking at!” Delaney said. “Either way I was still pumped to see this on iNaturalist, and now you know what to keep an eye out for!”

As someone who loves to take pictures of the nature around them already, for Delaney taking just one more step and posting it has a big payoff. “One of the most satisfying parts about doing citizen science projects is how you know you are making a difference by sharing all the awesome things you have seen.”

Catepillars Count

Caterpillars, and more broadly, arthopods, are the focus of a citizen science project that Anna Smith, HDT garden & grounds assistant in the Northern Lakes region recently joined. Multiple trees on the around the Hunt Utilities Group Resilient Living Campus became part of  "Caterpillars Count!" starting in May. Anna will be surveying the designated tree or shrub branches (consisting of at least 50 leaves) to identify how many arthropods are present, and recording that data weekly. 

The information gathered regarding the prevalence and timing of caterpillars and other insects throughout the spring and summer seasons is important for researchers. The questions the data helps answer include: 1. Are certain tree species host to more caterpillars compared to others? 2. Does the peak occurrence of caterpillars vary annually, and are these variations influenced by climate changes? 3. Is there coordination between the peak presence of caterpillars and the period when birds are raising their offspring?

Caterpillars Count began at University of North Carolina, now part of a broader project funded by the National Science Foundation. HDT’s site is one of five sites in Minnesota. Anna found out about it through the Minnesota Master Naturalist newsletter. The project intersected with her deep appreciation for all insects and how she enjoys observing them. “I appreciate their crucial roles in ecosystems, their fascinating behaviors, and their intricate adaptations,” said Anna.

Her participation in the project will help provide data that could contribute to solutions for challenges in the natural environment that ultimately have a much wider effect. As Anna said: “I also have concern over what a declining insect population means for bird and mammal populations that rely on them as a food source.”

Explore More

These are just a few examples of ways to become involved in citizen science. Whether you want to take something you're already interested in to a new level or start learning about something completely different, opportunities abound. In this blog post from 2017, Nature Notes: Citizen Science, HDT program specialist Nora, takes you on a crash course in phenology and winds up with a varied list of projects and ways to get involved in citizen science with her trademark enthusiasm.

In the blog post The Buzz on Citizen Science Bee Programs, Nora walks you through a number of benefits of working with bees. Check out the wrap-up paragraphs which reference how to use iNaturalist to connect to projects such as the Minnesota Bee Atlas. Expect to learn more about Nora’s citizen science adventures in future blog posts, as well as those of other HDT staff.


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