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September 2007

I, Citizen Scientist

Learn how you can help combat climate change by researching everything from Alaska's Bering Glacier to tracking pumas in Argentina through citizen scientist programs

At the edge of a mixed woodland near the southern coast of Nova Scotia, I stand with seven other citizen scientists before 100 of the world’s most expensive mousetraps. We’ve come together to do our part in the struggle against global warming. At the moment, that means snaring wily little rodents.

“These are Longworth traps, designed to capture mice and voles and leave them unharmed,” explains Christina Buesching, the University of Oxford biologist training us in their proper use. “They’re custom-made in England and cost between $60 and $100, so please be gentle with them.”

The trap is about the size of a woman’s foot. Buesching stuffs one end with hay, then adds some seed and a piece of apple as bait. “Don’t stuff it too tight, or the shrews won’t be able to escape through this hole,” she says, pointing to an opening that’s a little wider than a pencil. Shrews are tiny, insect-eating mammals with incredibly high metabolisms. They can starve to death if caught in a trap for longer than four hours. We’ll be checking our traps only twice a day, hence the shrew hole.

“Sometimes a young mouse will get stuck in the shrew hole and we have to use margarine to pull it back through,” says biologist Chris Newman, Buesching’s research partner. “It’s not a pretty sight.”

We’re here on a 14-day expedition to assist Buesching and Newman as they set up a long-term study of the effects of climate change on mammals–from mice to moose–in Nova Scotia. We’re nonscientists, part of a growing movement of lay volunteers partnering with professional researchers on real-world studies. Tapping into the exploding interest in climate change, groups such as the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy have set up citizen science programs to study everything from fish diversity to frog populations. Many citizen science projects are one-day cattle calls like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC); others involve training volunteers to collect data on their own.

Our own expedition is sponsored by Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit group that offers full-immersion expeditions lasting one to two weeks. This year, the institute will send about 4,000 volunteers on 140 projects around the world. Tasks range from measuring sediment on Alaska’s Bering Glacier to tracking pumas in the pampas of Argentina. Volunteers pay around $2,500, not counting airfare, for the experience.

It’s a simple solution to an old problem: Scientists need more hands than they can afford to hire. “We simply couldn’t do this without the volunteers,” says Newman. “We’ve got 100 traps out there. It would take Christina and me half a day to check them all, where a team of 10 can do it in an hour.”

For the volunteers, it’s a chance to apply their interest in the environment to real-world research. “It’s an opportunity to make some small contribution to science,” says Michael Kaye, a genteel medical doctor from Honolulu, “and see a new part of the world.”

Our traps baited, we march into the forest along imaginary gridlines. Buesching and Newman need traps set every 30 to 35 feet over 2 1/2 acres. “The important thing is to move as one wave,” Newman says. “Otherwise the grid lines will cross, and then it’s chaos in the forest.”

Kaye, my trap-laying partner, suggests a spot under a young white pine. I nestle it near a root. Kaye and I move on to the next grid plot, carrying traps stacked to our chins like shoe store clerks.

As the volunteers disappear deeper into the woods, Newman calls out some final advice. “Remember,” he says, “when you set the traps, leave the trap door open!”


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