A public nature trail in frog habitat. Citizen science on amphibians can be done easily in areas where humans and amphibians coexist. Photo © US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The divide between the scientific community and the public can be a difficult barrier to cross, in many respects. But does it have to be? There are many people not academically trained in the sciences who are interested, intelligent nature lovers who care about the environment and conservation just as much as any conservation scientist. The popularization of citizen science has emerged as one of the most useful tools in combining both scientific research and public participation and education1. Citizen science, in which anyone can send in data on a certain species or physical feature of our environment to a scientist or organization working on those topics, is a way for people to document their local environment in a way that can be meaningful to active scientific research and conservation efforts.
Education and Connection
Citizen participation in science promotes public environmental education, includes citizens actively in being a part of scientific progress, and has become increasingly reliable. Technology, such as GPS and cameras on smart phones and digital uploading options online has permitted more accurate data collection and a more reliable, accessible form of citizen data than ever before. Scientists can learn from locals, as well. We, as locals of a particular environment, are inherently knowledgeable about the natural system that constantly surrounds us. Asking for a picture of an animal in our backyard, or a report of the type of fish we caught is data that a scientist can find valuable. This kind of interaction is “an indispensable means of combining ecological research with environmental education and natural history observation”2.
Science can easily feel inaccessible by the public, because communication among scientists can become highly technical and difficult to convey to the public. Papers published about research can be unwelcoming to those not studying that subject due to their complexity and specificity. Citizen science projects improve communication between scientists and the public, a relationship that has not always been well matched. Spending time deliberately noticing a particular species or group of species increases awareness, understanding, and appreciation of natural systems. It can also spur interest in learning more about the species and environmental features that surround us and improve scientific literacy among the general public, which is becoming increasingly valuable as more species and systems face degradation and extinction.
Citizen Science and Amphibians
It is becoming increasingly important to monitor amphibian and reptile populations as they become more at risk, and monitoring by citizen scientists can provide an incredible amount of information that a small team of researchers simply cannot cover on their own. But, it’s not just about helping scientists gather a large amount of data. Local knowledge can be very valuable for amphibian populations in particular3. Amphibians tend to inhabit smaller areas, and do not move around a lot, making them good candidates for citizen science projects. Additionally, understanding diversity in an urban setting is often difficult for scientists, due to inaccessibility and a number of other factors. Understanding the impact of urbanization on herpetological communities is very valuable, however, and asking the public for help is a great way to gain insight in areas that would normally not be covered by a team of scientists. In this sense, citizen science isn’t just interesting to the citizen, it can be incredibly valuable for scientists to understand if and where certain species thrive in the midst of urban developments. Knowing this can help scientists understand the scope of a problem and come up with more specific research questions and better plans for conservation.
Now, with modern technology such as internet and smartphones, these contributions have become even easier. In one of the first modern large-scale studies done using citizen recordings of amphibian sightings uploaded to an online database, researchers were able to examine changes in entire frog communities over several years. Without citizen observations, this widespread monitoring over such a large area would never have been possible with just a small team of researchers. Knowledge about the frog communities, in this case in Southwest Florida, greatly improved restoration efforts and helped scientists understand what helps and hurts these frogs4.
How can you be a citizen scientist and help amphibians in your area?
If you want to participate in citizen science, there are many options.
There are national options for contributing to amphibian research, such as FrogWatch USA (https://www.aza.org/frogwatch/), the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/naamp/), or state and national parks. There are also local options such as nature reserves or programs hosted by natural history museums or zoos. You can view and contribute to a national database of all kinds of animals and plants all over the United States via iNaturalist.org, a way for everyone to share their observations with all.
It’s always important to remember that citizen science can be as simple as being aware of your environment and taking care of it by doing stream cleanups, disposing of waste properly, limiting outdoor chemical use, and educating others.
- Devictor, Vincent, Robert J. Whittaker, and Coralie Beltrame. “Beyond Scarcity: Citizen Science Programmes as Useful Tools for Conservation Biogeography.”Diversity and Distributions 3 (2010): 354-62.
- Dickinson, Janis L., Jennifer Shirk, David Bonter, Rick Bonney, Rhiannon L. Crain, Jason Martin, Tina Phillips, and Karen Purcell. “The Current State of Citizen Science as a Tool for Ecological Research and Public Engagement.”Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6 (2012): 291-97.
- Pitman, Shannon E., and Michael E. Dorcas. “Catawaba River Corridor Coverboard Program: A Citizen Science Approach to Amphibian and Reptile Inventory.” Journal of the North Carolina Academy of Science4 (2006): 142-51.
- Pieterson, E. Corrie, Lindsay M. Addison, Jorge N. Agobian, Brenda Brooks-Solveson, John Cassani, and Edwin Everham, III. “Five Years of the Southwest Florida Frog Monitoring Network: Changes in Frog Communities as an Indicator of Landscape Change.” Florida Scientist2 (2006): 117-26.
Mary Jade Farruggia, a lifelong amphibian lover, is on the path to a career in herpetology research and conservation. She is a senior undergraduate student in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution at the University of California, San Diego with a minor in music. After studying abroad in Costa Rica as a sophomore, where she studied Cane Toad behavior, tropical biology, and jungle exploring, she left her heart in the rainforest and solidified her passion for amphibians. From sharing her love for outdoor ecology as a science program leader for the Girl Scouts, to exploring decades of collections as a herpetology intern at the San Diego Natural History Museum, Mary Jade seeks to share her excitement for amphibian conservation through many avenues, including the ASA!
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