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
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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!”
As political, scientific, and industrial leaders struggle to deal with the implications of climate change, accurate scientific information is becoming increasingly valuable. We need to know what’s happening to the climate–using hard evidence, not anecdotes–and there aren’t enough trained biologists to do the job. In the United States, the research budgets of some federal agencies, such as NASA, are being cut even as the need for more data grows.
At the same time, many nonscientists are looking to fight global warming and to make sense of the information coming at them in a confusing barrage. The phrase “global warming” paints the phenomenon in the broadest strokes–a planetary occurrence. But it won’t have a uniform impact. The effects will be subtle, varied, and often unexpected.
Volunteer-assisted research has already led to a number of discoveries. Audubon’s CBC and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, two studies relying on volunteer data, showed that birds such as the northern cardinal and tufted titmouse have extended their ranges northward in recent decades. (Ornithologists aren’t sure whether this is due to global warming, an increased use of backyard bird feeders, or a combination of both.)
The phrase “citizen scientist” was coined in the 1990s by Rick Bonney, an ornithologist at Cornell University. Bonney, who has worked with volunteers since the mid-1980s, has seen huge growth in the movement in the past few years.
After years of government inaction, individuals and private companies are taking a cue from nonprofits by conducting and funding their own research. Earlier this year, for instance, the London-based bank HSBC announced a five-year, $100 million plan to fund long-term climate change research around the world. The project includes a pledge to send bank employees on citizen science projects–on company time.
Buesching and Newman’s own research provides a vivid example of the kind of long-term volunteer-assisted work needed to cope with climate change. Seventeen years ago, they began studying badgers at the Wytham Woods research site near Oxford. They wanted to know why the Wytham badgers were more sociable than their counterparts in Europe. Buesching and Newman’s long-term data, paired with other scientific records, led them to a startling conclusion: Climate change is producing a boom in badger births. “The population was doubling,” says Newman. “By 1996, we had the highest density of badgers in the world.”
What happened was this: Badgers put on a lot of fat in autumn, when worms, fruit, and seeds are abundant. During a harsh winter, they stay underground and live off that fat reserve. Especially cold winters kill off a lot of badgers; they run out of fat and starve. Female badgers get pregnant in late winter and give birth in the spring. To survive a harsh winter, some will miscarry their fetuses.
With increasingly milder winters, things changed. Fewer badgers starved, because they could come out and forage. More females gave birth. The badger boom wasn’t infinite; climate change also worked to keep a lid on it. More badgers foraging in winter meant that more ended up as road kill. And drier springs meant young cubs had a harder time finding worms to eat. “We ended up seeing two sides of the coin with climate change,” says Newman. “Ultimately, where the population size ends up depends on the balance between those two factors–milder winters and drier summers.”
Citizen scientists were crucial to those badger studies. Over the years, more than 400 amateur researchers helped Buesching and Newman trap and mark small mammals, and track down badgers’ latrines and setts (burrow systems). It’s not a setup that works for every scientist, but Buesching, a sunny Canadian-German, and Newman, a trim Brit, are suited for it. She’s a born teacher, patient and articulate; he’s a joker. “We’ve had all sorts,” says Newman. “Bankers, nurses, students, mechanics. One fellow was a former KGB agent. Sometimes we work with people in drug rehab, who often turn out to be the best volunteers. They’ve been through rough times. Some have seen a best mate overdose, been down on the street with rats. So when you ask them to pull a mouse out of a trap and clip its hair, why, there’s no hesitating. That’s nothing to them.”
Our group (none of whose members is in rehab) is typically eclectic. Kaye, the doctor, is a veteran of 13 Earthwatch expeditions. He’s tracked butterflies in Vietnam, chopped down invasive trees in the Galapagos Islands, studied marsupials in Australia, and scuba-mapped a coral reef in the Philippines. At 68, he’s like a science addict on a bender, merrily blowing through his retirement fund to collect as much data in as many exotic locales as he can before he shuffles off the mortal coil. The rest of us are novices. Alice Gamper is a shy 19-year-old college student from Scotland. David Outman, 33, works for a nature conservancy group in Massachusetts. Matthew Goodwin, 48, owns a construction business in the Boston area. Tina Woolston, 34, works at Earthwatch headquarters in Maynard, MA (staffers get trip discounts). Paul Bonazzi, 32, is a high school science teacher from New Jersey. Bonazzi came with his father, 59-year-old R.D., an auto technician.
Each group member has his or her own reason for coming. Gamper wants to get some experience handling small animals before applying for veterinary school. The younger Bonazzi plans to post a daily blog to show his students how real science is done in the field. His dad confesses to a recent environmental awakening. “I’m here to make up for all those catalytic converters we ‘customized’ back in the ’70s,” he says, half-jokingly.
The use of amateur assistants isn’t without controversy. Some scientists distrust volunteer-collected findings. It’s a legitimate concern. Poorly trained or wrongly utilized volunteers can produce data so inaccurate as to be useless. In addition to studying badgers and using volunteers, Buesching and Newman study the effectiveness of citizen science. They’ve found that information gathered by amateurs, under the right conditions, can be as good as, or better than, that collected by professional researchers. The novelty and challenge of identifying animal scat, for instance, can motivate a trained volunteer to find more specimens than a bored graduate student who’s sweeping his 500th test plot.
Our training starts with a brisk 5-mile hike along the Nova Scotia coast. It’s a postcard scene, with pond-dappled forests running down to meet the rocky, windswept shore. But Buesching and Newman want us to see beyond the surface beauty. “Take a look at this,” says Newman. He bends down to pick up some animal poop. “It’s raccoon feces,” he says, picking it apart with his fingers. “See the shell bits? He’s been filling up on mollusks.”
After an hour, the hike becomes a treasure hunt. The group is scanning the ground for scat. We identify deer droppings (which look like raisins). Snowshoe hares (Kix cereal). Porcupines (Cheetos Puffs). Soon, we’re spotting and identifying animal poop with increasing precision. Bonazzi the science teacher is videotaping it for his students. He holds up a fox dropping to Goodwin, the contractor. “Go ahead, Matthew, work your way through that,” he says. Goodwin demurs. “No thanks,” he says. “I’m holding out for something a little more special, like moose.”
The next morning, we all pile into a van and head out to the 350-acre main research site, Cook’s Lake Farm. “It used to be a working farm, but it was abandoned about 20 years ago,” Buesching says as she drives. “My parents own it now, and they want to preserve it for conservation and research.”
After nearly 20 years at Wytham Woods, Buesching and Newman are establishing a similar long-term study site in North America. Cook’s Lake Farm is ideal, Buesching says, because it contains all of the flora and fauna of inland Nova Scotia in a near-pristine setting that won’t be disturbed for decades. This expedition will start laying down a baseline of scientific data. “We want to know exactly what is living there and what size the populations are,” she says.
We start by setting out our mousetraps–small-mammal traps, actually, because they’ll catch mice, voles, and an occasional chipmunk. We’ll leave them overnight and check them in the morning. By doing this day after day, Buesching and Newman will get an idea of the rodent population. The rodents are a key species in the local food chain, serving as lunch for foxes, coyotes, raptors, and other, larger animals.
After setting our traps, we move on to the poop survey. Here’s where our earlier training comes in. Buesching marks out a 33-by-33-foot plot with a measuring stick; we all line up along one side. “We’re looking for deer droppings, but give a shout if you see any other poop as well,” Newman says. “I would advocate foot-sweeping or crawling on hand and foot as the desired technique. We might go through and find nothing; we might find a bonanza of pellets.” Since we’re in a grassy meadow, we adopt the latter method. Ten of us crawl across the grass. It takes about 5 minutes, and we find nothing. But repetition breeds skill. By our fifth plot, we’re foot-sweeping through in 30 seconds and turning up all sorts of crap: deer scat, porcupine poop, fox droppings. Buesching notes it all on her clipboard.
After some vigorous handwashing, we break for lunch. It’s a happy group. “I’m already attuning my eyes and ears differently,” says Goodwin. “When I hike through the woods of Massachusetts or New Hampshire, which is a similar landscape, it’s going to be a richer experience for me.”
That’s the thing about the Cook’s Lake Farm site–there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. It looks like any other patch of New England woodland or maritime Atlantic forest. And that’s why Buesching and Newman value it. The changes they observe here will give them clues as to what’s happening to animals throughout the region.
“It’s always difficult to make people realize they need to conserve their own back garden,” Buesching says. “It doesn’t strike them as anything special. Only when it’s gone do you realize it was worth preserving.”
“In England,” Newman adds, “people say, ‘We used to see water voles as children. Now we don’t see them anymore.’ But nobody knows how many water voles we’ve lost because nobody was counting them back then. Consequently, we’re not sure how many water voles we should try to restore.”
Porcupines are the water voles of North America. They’re easily identified, but nobody knows exactly how many are there. Porcupine parents raise one pup per year, and they’re prone to being run over by cars. “They don’t eat much over winter because of snow cover,” says Buesching. “But with less snow cover, will they be more active in winter? Will more get killed by cars in winter? It’s hard to say. At the moment, porcupines aren’t endangered. In 10 or 20 years, they could be.” By setting down a population baseline now, she’ll know in a decade if porcupines really are dying out or thriving.
After an afternoon spent mapping the research site using GPS coordinates, we return to the cottage and dig into plates of shepherd’s pie, a specialty of Newman’s Yorkshire family. We’re weary and famished. Fieldwork is hard. “I wish we had a pedometer to count how many miles we’re hiking every day,” says Tina Woolston.
“It’s not the mileage, it’s the terrain,” says Kaye
Before turning in, we set up a betting pool. How many mice will we find in our traps tomorrow morning? Ten, say Gamper and Goodwin. Twenty, says the elder Bonazzi.
“Twenty!” exclaims David Outman, Bonazzi’s trapping partner. “R.D., let’s talk about this.”
They settle on 15. Kaye and I are in for nine. We turn in thinking warm, happy thoughts about rodent trapping.
On the drive to the research site the next morning, I notice a notepad sitting next to the radio. It’s marked ROAD KILL. “Taking notes?” I ask.
“Yes, we’ll keep track to see if there are any seasonal patterns to what turns up on the road,” says Newman. “A lot of what we do is trawling, or collecting data without any specific hypothesis. We’ve got hypotheses we’re testing too, of course, but with long-term records we’re often not sure how they’ll be useful. Maybe it’ll come to nothing. Maybe we’ll answer a question we haven’t thought to ask yet.”
On the hike in, we spot the back half of a mouse that’s been torn apart by a predator. We volunteers proudly note that it’s a jumping mouse–we can see its distinctively long hind feet and lengthy tail. “Sure, you can identify it,” Newman says. “But what caused its death?” We stand there puzzling it out. Then Newman answers: “Lack of torso, I’d say.”
The moment of truth: trap-checking time. Eight volunteers race through the forest like children on Christmas morning. “If the door is open, don’t touch the trap,” Buesching tells us. “The less scent we leave on them, the better.” Ten, 20, 50, 100 traps. All empty.
“Well, high marks for consistency,” Newman says. He and Buesching aren’t worried. This is typical, they tell us. Rodents won’t be tempted until they become more comfortable with the strange, metallic objects in their territory.
We do some more mapping, and attach 10 camera traps to trees. (The motion-sensitive cameras will snap a photo of any animal that walks by.) Then, in the late afternoon, it’s back for another trap check. This time, we have something.
At the edge of the forest, Buesching places the trap inside a plastic bag and cautiously opens the metal hinge. Out pops a chipmunk. “Male, in breeding condition,” Buesching says. Newman weighs it with a field scale, then clips a bit of guard hair to mark it, so they’ll know they’ve already counted this animal. Tests done, the chipmunk scurries off.
Buesching, Newman, and the volunteers head back to the van. The volunteers are a bit dejected. The score stands at Small Mammals 99, Humans 1.
Newman isn’t disappointed, though. He knows more data will come. And indeed, over the next nine days, the team will find plenty of evidence: fresh deer and black bear droppings, photos of raccoons in the camera traps, and the remains of a porcupine killed by a fisher. (Despite the name, fishers don’t eat fish, but are renowned for their ability to kill porcupines by attacking them in the face.) The traps didn’t yield much–three more chipmunks and three red-backed voles–which surprises Buesching and Newman. “We had a late-spring snowstorm here,” Buesching says, “and that might have left them without food.” The fresh bear poop and the fisher kill excite the volunteers, but the scientists take a more dispassionate view of the findings. Everything they find, even the empty mouse traps, is useful information.
“These are long-term studies,” Newman tells me, “and we’re just starting. It might be years before we know if climate change is affecting porcupines, chipmunks, or other mammals–or isn’t. Only by knowing where and how many there are in 2007 can we possibly know if their population has changed by 2017. It could be that we’ll be saying, ‘We used to find chipmunks here, but we don’t anymore.’ By collecting this data now, we can look back and see what’s changed–and say it with certainty.”
In other words, that wasn’t just a chipmunk. That was the beginning of 20 years of scientific data that just might help save the world.
Bruce Barcott now recognizes the animal droppings around his home in Boulder, CO.
The Outdoors as a Classroom
Want to become a citizen scientist? Here are several ways to jump in.
Join a research team
What it does Sends teams to a variety of locales as part of a massive global study of climate change’s effect on forests and rivers.
What you’ll do In Manitoba, for example, you’ll use ground-penetrating radar and soil core samples to measure carbon levels in melting Arctic permafrost.
Info (800) 776-0188; earthwatch.org
All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory
What it does Inventories the 100,000-plus living organisms in the Smokies to create a baseline for detecting ecosystem changes.
What you’ll do Volunteers collect specimens, hunt for rare lichens, and sketch new finds for publication, among other activities.
Info (865) 436-3293; dlia.org/atbi
What it does Researches marine environments, including climate-change impact.
What you’ll do From Belize’s Blackbird Caye, you’ll snorkel the vast reef network, learning sampling techniques to identify and record stressed fish species.
Info (800) 326-7491; oceanic-society.org
Do it yourself
Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect
What it does Tracks the effects of rising temperatures and other pressures on the AT’s surrounding wilderness, using data on air and water quality, wildlife habitat, flora, and overall forest health.
What you’ll do First, sign up with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for training. Then you’ll monitor and report on key indicators along a designated section of trail.
Info (304) 535-6331; appalachiantrail.org
What it does The Appalachian Mountain Club is collecting data on plants, weather, and air quality to measure climate change.
What you’ll do In the Adopt-a-Peak program, you’ll periodically visit a Northeast trail section to check plants and visibility.
Info (617) 523-0655; outdoors.org
National Audubon Society
What it does Monitors shifts in migration patterns, an early indicator of global warming.
What you’ll do Spot birds on the trail and enter them into eBird.org to help track species distribution and movements.