Citizen science enables observation at the scale of ecological change
If Charles Darwin had carried a smartphone equipped with iNaturalist in 1835, he would have instantly sent ornithologist John Gould photographs of finches from the Galápagos Islands. Gould wouldn’t have had to wonder which island each bird was from because Darwin had neglected the very detail—geography—that would become a cornerstone of his theory of evolution by way of natural selection. The iNaturalist app would have assigned each photograph the date, time, latitude, and longitude of its occurrence. Gould would have seen precisely where the birds were from—though of course he would have wanted to study the physical specimens as well.
Darwin makes a good reference point for today’s citizen science. The term generally refers to nonscientists contributing to scientific research, but the practice is as old as the human need to understand our environment in order to survive in it. With no advanced degree, Darwin was an impassioned amateur. He performed some experiments, but most of his discovery was based on direct observation and pattern recognition—the essence of modern citizen science, which is turbocharged by smartphone technology and massive computing power. Aboard the Beagle, Darwin was in service to British colonial ambitions. Necessitated by the biodiversity crisis, today’s citizen science is more in the spirit of Aldo Leopold. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote that the individual should interact with the environment in an ecological rather than sovereign way: as a “plain member and citizen” of the land. The way to do that is to observe as Darwin did. Today, the data gathered by citizen scientists follows his template for understanding life on Earth.
In the decades following the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, the world of science energetically set out to collect examples of life and to attempt to affix each species in its place on the tree of life. Amateur collectors were fundamental to this enterprise. Sugarcane heiress and citizen scientist exemplar Annie Alexander organized and funded bone-seeking expeditions to aid the creation of an accurate picture of the past. A thinker as well as a collector, she helped found UC Berkeley’s Department of Paleontology, Museum of Paleontology, and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ). Building on Darwin’s proposal that life proceeds by modification through descent, Alexander realized that to understand fossils, it helps to understand their closest living relatives—perhaps she took that into account when posting Joseph Grinnell at the helm of the MVZ. Among other notable undertakings, Grinnell refined the methodology by which instances of life were observed and collected, placing the utility of his work in future terms. He could already see land-use change impacting biodiversity and hoped that his now-famous 1914–20 biotic survey would, a century later, provide “the original record of faunal conditions in California.” And researchers have, indeed, compared contemporary and historical conditions by referencing Grinnell.
Less than 100 years later, we have, out of necessity, turned from focusing on how life began to figuring out how to keep it from disappearing. Rather than collecting physical specimens, we more often capture digital representations of their occurrences. The basic template of the survey and the resurvey of who exactly is living where, and when, provides a road map of change over time and helps illustrate Darwin’s idea of unfolding life. While scientists still inventory and monitor biodiversity themselves, many also now recognize the utility of engaging volunteers in the collection, and even the analysis, of data. Today, all over the world, people are doing “bioblitzes” to document the natural world. The data collected is supported by GPS and the atomic clock. It’s aggregated in databases that make it possible to query how temperature and precipitation patterns track alongside species observations. Grinnell, refiner of the ecological niche concept, would be enthusiastic about the possibilities, which include analyzing the current and future impacts of climate change.
Those impacts are far-reaching, swift-moving, and alarming. Projections reference global models built with satellite data, but ecological adaptations occur at local levels. How to build data sets that reconcile field measurements like those taken by Grinnell with remotely sensed imagery of continents and oceans?
Author Mary Ellen Hannibal volunteers at a tide pool in Half Moon Bay, California to count sea stars as part of a citizen science project facilitated by the California Academy of Sciences.PHOTO: Richard Morgenstein
Enter the smartphone, GPS, and the citizen scientist. Citizen science has the potential to comprise a global biodiversity observation network made up primarily of human eyes. Every individual can contribute specific observations that aggregate into a data-rich big picture. While studies analyzing the accuracy of amateur observations are inconclusive, many citizen science platforms can provide a corrective function. At nearly 600 million avian observations and counting, eBird’s numbers are so rich that they render misidentifications statistically insignificant. iNaturalist solicits expert opinion to vet every observation contributed to its site. When an observation is deemed “research grade,” it is uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, making it digitally available worldwide.
Citizen science enables observation on the scales at which nature actually operates. We are already seeing patterns that wouldn’t be evident without its contributions. The sea star wasting syndrome affecting the intertidal from Alaska to Baja is one example: There aren’t enough scientists to adequately monitor such a gigantic expanse, but hundreds of volunteers are helping document the loss, and, in some places, subsequent recruitment, of sea star populations. No single scientist or group of scientists could successfully take on the task of observing the “experiment” that global climate change is wreaking on the ocean ecosystem.
Greg Pauly, a herpetologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, relies on volunteers using iNaturalist to populate his Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California inventory and monitoring program. On his own, he would never have been able to collect the data he’s accumulated, because the observations are largely on private property. He praises the project’s participants for documenting elusive biotic interactions. “I’ve never seen alligator lizards mating with my own eyes,” he says, “but I’ve seen more photographs of it than anyone else in the world.” Pauly thinks that citizen science is revealing so much more about biology than we previously had access to that it will revolutionize our understanding of how life works.
And there’s more to citizen science than science. When people make direct observations of nature, they don’t just take a photograph; they make a connection. Among the very people collecting the data are the activists who organize to address detrimental change. We wouldn’t even know that we are currently witnessing the crash of the monarch butterfly’s migration on the West Coast, for example, if it weren’t for the citizen scientists who have been monitoring the butterfly’s numbers for 30 years. And those documenters are the foundation of efforts to support the monarch, which begin with disseminating the news and letting people know what to do about the crisis (in broad strokes: better address pesticide and herbicide use, habitat conversion, and global warming).
Citizen science is often presented as primarily an educational tool, and the practice does align perfectly with STEM guidelines. But citizen science does more than educate. It makes nature observation possible on temporal and spatial scales that would otherwise be inaccessible, and it can even help reveal ecological interactions. It connects the local to the regional and the global. Darwin would have marveled. If we are to continue to observe, as he did, “endless forms most beautiful,” we must do so with databases in mind and iNaturalist in hand.
Mary Ellen Hannibal is a science journalist, author, and dedicated citizen scientist. Her recent book, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, was named a best book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her writing has been featured in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including Science, the New York Times, and Bay Nature.