Participate in Nature: Become a Citizen Scientist

Melody Kraus
Adams County Master Gardener

The nine-spotted lady bug, Coccinella novemnotata, is a native species which deserves protection.

Citizen Science has received a growing amount of attention over the past few years, as average individuals are encouraged to collect data on specific topics and submit their results to professionals for evaluation and study.

Although this technique is used worldwide, the term was first applied by Dr. Don McCrimmon and Dr. Cal Smith of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University circa 1979-1981. More specifically, it is attributed to Rick Bonney of the same institution. However, the idea did not emerge in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.

Instead, it traces back for hundreds of years to a time when science was not a career, but simply an interest in a particular area, on which research was performed during an individual's own time. For example, Johan Ernst Gunnerus, a Norwegian bishop living in the 1700s, focused on natural history, specifically botany. He collected a large number of specimens during visits to central and northern Norway. Also, he asked other clergymen to send him observations and specimens. In America, in the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau cataloged the arrival dates of migratory birds and the first appearance of flowers and leaves in Concord, Massachusetts.

In the late nineteenth century, the profession of scientist developed and individuals not formally educated or trained were removed from contributing to research. Fortunately, this trend has reversed itself and interested parties can contribute observations again. This work can be performed by individuals, teams, or networks of volunteers and results can be examined locally, regionally or nationally. While subjects of study vary greatly, a description of a few projects follows.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network at consists of volunteers in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada who collect and contribute data about the local amount of precipitation on their own properties. The numbers are plotted on a map to show nationwide patterns. focuses upon global migration patterns and monitors hummingbirds, whooping cranes, gray whales and monarch butterflies. It promotes the planting of tulip test gardens to monitor the arrival of spring and studies the role of sunlight in seasonal changes by monitoring the length of the light during a day. discusses the disappearance of native North American lady bugs and the expansion of foreign species during the past 20 years. It teaches identification and locating, collecting and photographing these insects. Images can be uploaded and the report of no sightings is considered important.

Project Budburst at encourages individuals to observe plants, and record and submit data about them. Contributors choose from a master list of over 250 plants in five different groups. They can create single reports, which describe a plant at a particular moment, or regular reports, which track plants on specific days of the year.

Pennsylvania has (formerly, which is the website for the Pennsylvania Amphibian and Reptile Survey. It seeks to document the location and status of amphibians and reptiles statewide through reports by individuals. The site contains a list of species found in the Commonwealth, a guide to their identification, and ways to report sightings or view results.

Finally, citizen science projects can focus on one event. For example, tracks the irruption (the sudden appearance of a large number of animals or plants where they are not normally found) of Snowy Owls during the winter of 2013-2014. It contains a blog, maps, and a way to contribute photographs.

Citizen science has criticisms. The strongest one is the possibility of inaccuracy of information. Volunteers may enter bias into the results or outwardly lie. Also, they may quit, report inconsistently or not follow instructions. However, projects need to be carefully constructed, managed and analyzed. They should be simple with detailed and easy to understand instructions, plus training for the volunteers. Then, professionals should search for errors or anomalies in the data.

Free research assistance is essential when funding is limited or non-existent. Also, the analysis of the data allows professionals to focus their plans for study, select geographical areas for observation, or write grant applications to support in-depth work. Furthermore, some amateurs have written scientific papers and their individual record keeping over years has yielded valuable information to professionals. Overall, the cost-effectiveness of citizen science data may outweigh issues concerning the quality of the results.

Therefore, you may wish to search for a project on a topic you like and fits your schedule, and become a citizen scientist today.

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