Citizen Science Projects for Wildlife Lovers | Thinking Animals United

You can contribute to global research and conservation efforts in as little as 30 minutes

By Maria Ter-Mikaelian, Ph.D.

Photo: Or Hiltch/Flickr, source

Did you ever dream about being a scientist as a kid? Or perhaps recent movies, like Hidden Figures, have inspired you to ponder a career path you never thought possible? Well, the good news is – you don’t have to go back to school for a Ph.D. to engage in citizen science. No lab coat is needed – all you need is a subject you are passionate about and a willingness to donate your time and effort, from as little as 30 minutes to an ongoing commitment of one or more hours a week. If you are reading this blog, then you are probably already passionate about wildlife conservation. So how can you contribute?

As a citizen scientist, you partner with a team of established scientists – often at a university, but sometimes at a government agency or a non-profit organization – who are conducting a study requiring a vast number of independent observations. Because the researchers have limited manpower and can only be in one place at any given time, they rely on volunteer citizen scientists from all over the world to supply them with data. This can be in the form of photos, videos, written observations, or recorded numbers, which you usually submit to the scientists via a website. The researchers then combine all the data they receive to analyze and draw conclusions, which are typically published in scientific journals, but also shared through their website and other media outlets. Some projects provide individual feedback to each citizen scientist or give the opportunity to engage on a continuing basis.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ongoing citizen science projects around the world, many involving wildlife. Below are five of the most exciting and diverse, which you can become involved in immediately, if you wish. 

  • If you own a property that is occasionally visited by wildlife, you can volunteer to set up camera traps on it and submit the images to eMammal, a global repository of camera trap data managed by the Smithsonian. Even if not a single image of a mammal is ever captured by your camera, the data may be valuable to researchers in learning what areas animals of a particular species avoid, or where the numbers of a certain species have dwindled. eMammal is used by many groups of scientists around the world, so use their website to determine whether there is a project you could contribute to in your area. For example, the NY Metro Wildlife Network is currently recruiting volunteers in the greater NY Metropolitan area to help them study how several species, including coyotes, red foxes, and black bears, make a living in this semi-urban environment. Perks: in addition to the inner sense of satisfaction at having contributed to a scientific effort which can ultimately help us better preserve wildlife, many of these projects publish rankings of top citizen scientists on their websites!

An American Black Bear captured by an eMammal camera trap; source 

  • Are you a bird-watcher? If so, eBird, an online program created by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, may be just for you. The website provides a user-friendly interface where you can enter when and where you went bird-watching and fill out a checklist of birds seen and heard on your walk.   The data are shared by many scientist groups, some studying only specific species in a particular region, others looking at global trends. Perks: the eBird website hosts regular challenges and contests with prizes for avid birders. Additionally, the site publishes frequent updates about scientific discoveries made thanks to the eBird data, and features a profile of a star citizen scientist every month. 
  • However, you don’t need to recognize bird species or have extensive property in the woods to participate in citizen science. Do you have 30 minutes to go for a walk in your neighborhood? If so, you can contribute to the study of evolution at work! SquirrelMapper is a project aiming to understand the evolution of color in Gray Squirrels, which, in spite of their name, are not all gray and, in fact, used to be mostly black a few centuries ago. If you live anywhere where these squirrels are found (much of the U.S. and Canada), simply print out the instructions from the website, bring a pen on your walk, and count how many gray and black squirrels you see. Then enter the data into the website, and voila – you’ve entered the ranks of evolutionary scientists! Perk: the website has a section for teachers with suggestions for how to use the project for fun evolution-centered activities with their students.

 Photo by Eric Bégin/Flickr, source 

  • Do you like to cycle, walk, or run along roads or highways? Few things can ruin your mood like seeing the carcass of a dead animal on the road. The next time this happens, you can turn this upsetting experience to good effect by submitting the information to Adventure Scientists’ Roadkill Survey. All you need to do is to snap a photo with your smartphone and submit the picture, along with the GPS coordinates from your phone, to the website. Researchers at the University of California-Davis are using roadkill data submitted by citizen scientists to study animal movement patterns, with the ultimate goal of influencing transportation policy to reduce vehicle-caused animal deaths. 
  • Do you ever go whale-watching and take pictures? You can submit your photos to HappyWhale, which will then use sophisticated image processing to match the picture with others in its database and identify the species and particular individual you saw. You will then be informed about the movements of your whale around the globe – how cool is that? The founders of HappyWhale aim not only to provide data about whale behavior to their partnering researchers, but to foster a sense of stewardship in people by creating personal connections to these marine mammals. Perk: the website posts rankings of top citizen scientists, and the project boasts a lively Facebook community as well.HappyWhale’s software uses tail and other body markings to identify individual whales.

Photo: Isaac Kohane/Flickr, source

Now that you’ve had a glimpse of some exciting citizen science initiatives, you may be curious to find others. Whatever your interests, location, and time constraints, you can find the perfect project on SciStarter. The website has a very convenient search form, where you can even focus on activities that can be done entirely indoors, for example, or find projects in which the whole family can participate. Many of the projects also have accompanying classroom materials, so if you are a teacher, you can engage your students in citizen science and incorporate it into the curriculum. Additionally, the National Geographic Society has an extensive list of citizen science projects, many of which focus on animals. So don’t wait – try your hand at citizen science!

Maria teaches Animal Behavior and also writes at https://medium.com/@maria.ter

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