Friday 5: The Dark Side of Being an Entomologist

Welcome to Friday 5!  Wanted to take a moment before I jump into my list to say thanks.  My blog post on Monday, the one about my family, was featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed and the response to that little blog post was… well, more than I ever imagined to be honest.  So, I know I say it fairly often, but to my long-time blog followers: I am incredibly honored that you are a part of my blogging experience.  It means so much to me that you take time out of your day to read what I write here and your continued support means the world to me.  To the newbies: welcome!  I hope you enjoy what I do here and look forward to interacting with you in the future.  Thank you all!  But let’s get to Friday 5!

I love being an entomologist.  I know, I know, this is coming as a shock to you all, but I really love what I do!  However, there is a dark side to being an entomologist too.  People don’t always talk about these things, but it’s true: being an entomologist isn’t all carrion beetles and sunbeams and butterflies!  There are some downsides too.  These include:

1. YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT WORK AT THE DINNER TABLE

lunch

Most people don't want to hear about gross insect things while they're sitting down to eat something like this!

Dining with other entomologists is great!  You can talk about anything.  Most non-entomologists, however, REALLY don’t want to hear about how carrion beetles strip the skin off of dead mice, roll them into little balls, bury them in the dirt, spit all over them to keep them from growing fungus, and then watch their wormy little offspring devour the meat.  I saw a fantastic time lapse video of maggots decomposing a bear at the Entomological Society of America meeting a few years ago, but do people want to hear about how it exploded into a mass of writhing maggots while they’re eating?  No!  I generally avoid talking about work at dinner.  People like me better if I do.  :)

2.  You’d better like insect gifts!

insect paper

A very good friend of mine sent me a package one day and this wonderful aquatic insect paper was inside. This friend knows me well and knows I enjoy paper crafts, so I love it!

Once people learn you’re an entomologist (or want to be one), you’re doomed: you’re never getting another non-insect gift again!  Okay, this isn’t totally true.  The people who know you well will get you things that have nothing to do with insects (unless of course, you actually want insect things!).  But those other people who feel obligated to give you gifts, yet don’t really know you well…  Prepare to be gifted insect things, the entomological equivalent of the gift card!  Now I personally love insect gifts, especially insect art, but sometimes you just have to sigh discretely and ponder how many bug vacuums one person really needs.

3. People ask for insect ID’s all the time

wasp

It's a wasp. That's all I can tell you other than it's likely a parasitic wasp in the family Braconidae or Ichneumonidae, probably the former.

I am sure you’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: I am not a taxonomist and therefore not an expert in insect identification.  I know my Arizona aquatic insects really well, but I am thrilled when I can identify a land dwelling insect without sitting down at a microscope with a bunch of keys and a specimen.  I definitely can’t ID anything from a verbal description like this: “It was this little black/brown beetle/moth with antennae! What was it?”  When people discover you are an entomologist, you become The Bug Expert.  They assume you can identify every one.   It doesn’t matter if I tell someone that there are over a million species of insects and no one person can possibly know them all.  People are invariably disappointed when I tell them I have no idea what the little black/brown beetle/moth they saw was from a verbal description alone.  Now a photo…  That I can often work with!

4.  People ask you identify skin conditions

bug bites

See, you didn't need to see this! I only took photos of these bites because I had over 300 biting midge (aka, no-see-um) bites all over my legs and arms and I was SO miserable that I felt I should document them. This photo now reminds me to wear long pants in the field!

This is the worst part of being an entomologist for me!  There are a lot of people in the world who are bitten/stung by insects, spiders, or scorpions and it is absolutely reasonable that they want to a) know how dangerous whatever bit them was or b) identify what bit them if they didn’t see it.  However, these are things that a doctor, perhaps even a dermatologist, should diagnose.  Or contact a poison control center!  Some entomologists do know a thing or two about different bites and what they look like, but most of us do not and will not be able to help you.  Heck, I usually can’t diagnose my own bites!  If you happen to have taken some bad acid and have become convinced that there are bugs crawling on you, your local entomologist is not going to be thrilled when you show them your oozing scabs or bring them bloody bandages to see if there are actually bugs in them.  And please, for the love of all that is good, do not call/e mail to ask if the scorpion that you purposely allowed to sting sensitive sexual organs as a sort of natural Viagra is going to cause permanent damage!  I don’t know and I really don’t need that mental image etched into my brain for the rest of my life, thank you very much.  (You all didn’t need it either, I’m sure, but it’s a great example of the sort of thing I have actually dealt with.)

Most people don’t appreciate your contributions to the world

Sabino

Me in Sabino Canyon. Photo by Laura Goforth.

Maybe it has something to do with the part of the country they’re from or that they tend to be rural corn farmers (certainly nothing wrong with being a corn farmer – I LOVE corn!), but I dread talking about what I do with the people in my mom’s tiny little town of 1000 people.  My least favorite question, which I get every time I go to visit, is this: “You study bugs in the water, huh?  Why would anyone even want to do that?!”  If you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in nature and/or insects, or are at least amused by the fact that some random woman in Arizona is way too in love with insects for her own good.  You are awesome!  But most people are nothing like you.  Many see absolutely no value in what I do, nevermind that aquatic insects will likely play an important role in water resource management in the future and are a valuable scientific tool for addressing water quality problems now.  Plus, aquatic entomology is FUN!  However, I’ll admit: it’s a little disheartening to get The Question because I love what I do and I know it’s important, but some people don’t see it.  Sigh…

There are, of course, downsides to every profession.  On the other hand, entomology tends to attract a certain type of person, people who have passions that are a little outside the mainstream.  We love what we do, regardless of what other people think, and most of us are used to people thinking we’re weird.  And, the opportunity to spend our lives working with insects (and get paid for it no less!) generally far outweighs the negatives parts of the job.  So I can’t talk about disgusting work things at the dinner table (or on Facebook) and a lot of people don’t “get” me.  I don’t mind!  I am doing what I love to do every day and that makes me a really happy person.

Hey!  I think I just found a good response to The Question!  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com
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Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Brrr…

My advisor and I take our Aquatic Entomology students on two 3-day camping trips, one in southern Arizona and one in northern Arizona.  The latter often involves snow or freezing rains, miserably cold nights, and roaring campfires.  Sometimes it’s warm during the day, but other times it’s more like this:

Cold students

Brrr...

Granted, a lot of Arizonans break out the parkas when it gets below 55 degrees, but it was genuinely cold on this particular trip!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Why I Am an Entomologist

The end of 2011 is coming up fast!  This time of year is often a time of reflection where we ponder the past and make plans for the future.  In that spirit, today I’d like to tell you all a bit about my childhood and my family, what I believe led to my becoming an entomologist.  I’ll get back to the sciencey posts on Science Sunday and into the new year.

family

My Grandpa with me (right) and my sister

My grandfather died just before I turned 6, so I barely remember him, but I do remember a few things.  He had a fantastic collection of turtle figurines that I absolutely loved.  He would pick up bumblebees without fear, even though he was deathly allergic.  (I later learned that he only picked up the non-stinging males, but it was so magical as a kid!)  And my grandfather was a birder.  A serious birder.  Any time my cousins (who are all much older than I am) tell stories about our grandfather, they talk about being outside with him, carrying binoculars and squinting at birds up in the trees, learning about the plants and animals around them.  I remember my grandfather telling me about the birds in my Arizona backyard.  My grandfather built up an impressive bird life list and passed his love of birds and nature on to his kids and grandkids.

Now I didn’t know my grandfather very well, but my cousins are outdoorsy in various ways.  They claim to owe a lot of their nature loving personalities to my grandfather.  They hike and learn about the natural history of their areas.  They bird and camp and raft and teach their kids how to do everything they learned from my grandfather.  I think it’s great to be a part of a family that is so inclined to appreciate the changes of the seasons, who save up money to buy really expensive binoculars, and carry bird books in their back pockets.  Even though my cousins were much older than me when I was growing up, I always felt like I got to experience a little of what they experienced with my grandfather through them.

parents

My parents on one of their many outdoor excursions before I was born.

My grandfather’s influence is very apparent in my mother too.  She is a birder.  She also learned to fish and swim and shoot rifles from my grandfather.  Thanks to my mom, I can make a mean campfire and cook an excellent fireside meal, swim quite well, and I’m a good shot.  And my mom never cared if my sister and I brought animals into the house when we were kids.  We were both little tomboys, so we spent most of every day outside catching lizards and snakes, watching birds, pressing flowers and leaves, and building enormous snow forts in Colorado.   My mom may never have picked up a bee, but she was really into nature and allowed her kids to be too.  And she barely even cared when the snake got out of its cage and said, “Eh, it will turn up eventually.”  I thought that was awesome.

my dad

My dad with his beloved Porsche. He was about to start mineral collecting in this photo!

Then there’s my dad.  He spent his childhood in the woods in North Carolina.  I don’t really know where his interest in nature came from, but I’m pretty sure he developed it on his own.  He told my sister and me stories about accidentally releasing snakes in his school and how he was stung many, many times by a swarm of angry wasps when he stepped on their nest.  My dad loves birds and enjoys fishing.  My dad’s first love, though, is geology.  He is obsessed with minerals!  When I was very young, he spent nearly every weekend going out to various locations in Arizona to collect, sometime rappelling down into old mines or blasting rocks apart with dynamite.  (I’m sure there are laws against the latter now!)  When we moved to Colorado, he left the dynamite behind, but the whole family went mineral collecting nearly every weekend.  When it was too snowy to get to his favorite collecting spot, or just to change things up occasionally, we’d head to the river instead where my sister and I would swim (the very thought makes me cold as an adult!) or ice skate and spend whole days fishing and playing in the river.  We were fascinated when we found a big aquatic insect under a rock one day and screamed bloody murder every time a harmless little garter snake swam past us down the river.

columbine

A columbine I photographed in high school. Pardon the dust!

When I headed into my teenage years, I was starting to get a little sick of spending every weekend in the mountains covered in dirt or river water with my dad.  But then I started collecting insects.  And then I learned that being an entomologist was a real profession.  And ten I started photographing things.  Suddenly the mountains were a grand place to collect insects or practice with my camera and I actually wanted to go again.  I built up a large collection of Rocky Mountain insects and a massive photo collection over 3 or 4 years.  It was great!  My dad started to get interested in insects too, and sometimes we went to the mountains specifically so I could collect.  And my mom still didn’t mind if I brought home jars full of bugs, dead and alive, and spread them all over the dining table.  My mom rocks.

Pikes Peak

Beyond this mountain lay countless outdoor adventures! Shot this photo shortly after I started using my first SLR camera in high school.

I think I am an entomologist today largely due to my family.  Nature was important to everyone (even my dad’s parents once they moved to Arizona) and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid.  I learned to appreciate the things around me.  More importantly, I was allowed to interact with the natural world.  Once I discovered insects, it was all over – there wasn’t a chance that I was ever going to become anything other than an entomologist.  I don’t have kids, but I find myself teaching my students the same way I was taught, letting them experiencing things on their own.  And I can tell my family had a profound influence on the direction I’m headed in life because my sister has ended up in a similar place, teaching kids and teens about ecology and natural sciences as an Environmental Education Park Ranger.  We still run around in the desert together catching lizards and marveling over how amazing the world really is once you get off the beaten path, just like we did as kids. I absolutely love it!

So, a great outdoorsy childhood, nature loving family, and the discovery of insects doomed me to a life as an entomologist.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Friday 5: Add Some Insect Cheer to Your Holidays!

It’s getting closer and closer to Christmas (and Hanukkah is well on it’s way), so a lot of people are rushing about trying to fit in last-minute shopping and trying not to go completely crazy as they deal with family.  If you’re from the northern hemisphere, chances are that insects don’t play a very big role in your holiday plans because it’s much too cold for them to be out and about at this time of year.  But you can do something about that!  Why not add some insect love to your holidays?  I love crafting things, so I thought I’d share 5 easy holiday projects that you can do to bring some insects into your celebrations!

Butterfly Ornaments

feather butterflies

One of my best friends sent me a photo of her tree last Christmas: it was COVERED with butterflies!  And she had made her ornaments too.  Her secret: those little feather butterflies you can get at craft stores or silk flower shops.  I decided to make a few for my own tree this year, and it couldn’t have been any easier.  The ornament you see above took all of 2 minutes to make!  Simply add a drop of glue where the wire is inserted into the butterfly and let it dry.  Then bend the wire to form a hanger (I simply made a V-shape in mine) and trim the excess wire.  Then attach it to your tree!  So easy, and they look spectacular when you have a bunch of them scattered about the branches.

Beaded Dragonfly Ornaments

beaded dragonflies

Another friend of mine was given some beaded dragonflies for Christmas a few years ago and we got together one day to make our own.  All you need is some thin wire (24 or 26 gauge works well) and an assortment of small glass beads (seed beads and a few bigger ones).  If anyone happens to want instructions for how to make these, I have hand-written instructions available, but if you have any experience with beading you can probably figure it out simply by looking at the example in the photo.  They look great hanging from Christmas trees, or you can use them to make hair pins, etc after the holidays if a dragonfly decorated tree isn’t quite your thing.

Gift Wrap

wrapping paper

Printing your own gift wrap is easy!  All you need is some rubber stamps (or relief printing blocks if you want to go all out and carve your own designs), an ink pad, and a roll of blank paper.  I like to use kraft paper that you  can get at office supply stores because it comes in big rolls for very little money and I like the natural look if it.  I print 4-5 different patterns on my paper, so I stretch the paper out along my table, print with the first stamp along the section, repeat with the rest of the sections until I reach then end of the roll, and then repeat with the other stamps.  One thing to think about though, something I learned as my sister, another bridesmaid, and I printed table runners the day before my wedding: if you get the black stamp pads they sell at office supply stores, look to see if they are permanent ink before you get it all over your hands.  When they say permanent, they really mean it!  (It doesn’t show up in any of my wedding photos, but my table runner crew and I all had black insect parts printed on our hands throughout my wedding.)  Insect paper doesn’t scream “holidays!” but it can still look quite elegant.

Gift Tags

Why buy gift tags with snowflakes and reindeer on them when you can have fabulous insects tags?  Just choose a heavy paper or card stock you like, cut out a shape, and either rubber stamp or draw an insect on one side!  Then all you need to do is cut a hole in the top and run some string through and you’ve got yourself some sytlin’ gift tags for your gifts!  The ones I have pictured here are all simple rubber stamps.  The dragonfly was done in red ink and embosssing powder, the flower/butterfly was done in clear ink with brown distressing powder, and the other two were done in that very permanent black ink.  I really love the look of black ink on kraft paper, so I use this combination a lot.

Thank You Cards

When the holidays are over, it’s time to send thank you notes.  Why not make your own swanky insect thank you cards?  These were very simple: two rectangles in contrasting colors of card stock, one slightly smaller than the other.  I used a craft punch to punch the butterflies out and then used a glue stick to attach the punched card to the solid card.  Then I rubber stamped the text.  All I need to do now is write the thank you notes on the back, slip them into envelopes (available at craft, paper, and office stores), and mail them off!

I don’t ever do the standard Christmas crafts because I just don’t like them, but I enjoy bringing insects into every holiday.  I hope everyone gets at least one insect related thing over the winter holidays this year!  Happy holidays!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Sunset

One of my favorite extracurricular activities of all time was participating in a biological survey on a Mexican nature preserve/ranch that is co-managed by US and Mexican conservation organizations.  A big group of 15-20 people traveled to Mexico on four separate occasions and collected, processed, and identified as many biological specimens as we could over a 3-day period.  I’d spend my days collecting aquatic insects and helping with other surveys, then we’d have a great dinner before everyone got down to sorting and IDing in the fabulous ranch house.  It was a stunningly beautiful place, especially at sunset:

Sunset at Los Fresnos

Sunset at Los Fresnos

Heaven!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Wildfires and Aquatic Insects

lightning

Lightning, one of the main causes of wildfires.

2011 was  terrible  year for wildfires in Arizona.  We had several mountain ranges burning at once and huge swaths of forest land were reduced to ash.  One fire, the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona’s White Mountains, became the state’s largest fire on record, eventually spilling over into the western part of New Mexico.  Homes and cabins burned as firefighters struggled for a month to get the fire under control.  It was bad.  Really bad.

There are several obvious losses associated with wildfires in forested areas.  U.S. National Forests are in place to protect the nation’s timber resources, and a lot of those were burned away in Arizona’s summer fires.  People lost homes and businesses and the state lost some fantastic and popular recreational areas.  Many animals were displaced during the fires and several species have probably lost breeding grounds and stops along migration corridors.  It’s going to a long time before everything’s back to normal in the burn areas and some areas, where the fires razed all the trees, may never fully return to their pre-fire conditions.

Campfire

Campfires are a common source of wildfires. An improperly tended fire was the likely cause of the Wallow Fire.

By and large, these obvious costs are the things people associate with wildfires, but the damages wrought by fires are much more widespread.  Most people don’t even imagine that fires might impact aquatic systems because water doesn”t burn.  However, wildfires can destroy aquatic systems and the insects and other aquatic organisms that depend on them.

Fires damage aquatic systems in many ways.  Burned trees leave behind massive amounts of ash.  Because the Arizona fires occurred before the summer rains began, all that ash was sitting around waiting to be swept into streams and lakes when the rains came.  Increased ash in streams usually causes dissolved oxygen to plummet and can cause other changes to the chemical environment of the water such that insects (and fish and aquatic plants and amphibians) die in mass numbers.  Even if some things are able to survive in the new water conditions, they might die off anyway if their foods have been eliminated from the system.

Aspen Fire

The Aspen Fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains, several years ago.

Trees and other vegetation provide stabilization to the soils in forests, holding them in place.  When you eliminate the trees, erosion increases dramatically.  Soils start to loosen and move about, and rains can get things moving even faster.  A lot of this sediment finds its way into streams.  Most headwater streams, the sources of streams and rivers, have little sediment and are instead full of large rocks and small boulders.  Many insects are adapted to living on or under those rocks and don’t do so well if they’re buried in sand and silt.  Sedimentation can therefore eliminate essential habitat for many aquatic invertebrate species.  These species will die if conditions do not quickly return to normal.  Things rarely return to normal quickly.

Increased erosion leads to another problem: the ability of soils to absorb water decreases dramatically.  This means that even gentle rains can sometimes lead to flooding, causing flash flooding in streams.  Flash flooding and aquatic insects generally don’t mix (though there are some notable exceptions), and most individuals are swept up in a mass of swirling water full of sand and rocks.  These insects are generally ground up into microscopic bits, though a few might be swept out of their habitat and deposited somewhere far downstream.  If the habitat conditions in that area aren’t right, they’ll eventually die too.

wildfire

A little wildfire I came across a few years ago. It quickly burned itself out, thankfully.

The loss of vegetation directly impact the stream as well.  Shade is eliminated and water temperatures rise.  Insects that depend on cold water might not survive.  Vegetation is also a very important food source in the headwater regions of streams, providing essential nutrients to the system as leaves and branches fall into the water.  When this food source disappears, so do the insects that depend on it.

Then there’s the problem of fire retarding chemicals that firefighters use to bring wildfires under control.  These are important tools for fighting fires, but when it rains, the chemicals are flushed into lakes and streams along with the sediment and ash.  If a species is sensitive to this sort of pollution, it’s not going to do so well when it’s suddenly swimming in a toxic stew.

fire's aftermath

You can see the charred areas where the mesquite trees and agaves burned in the Greaterville Fire in summer 2011. This was one of the little fires.

So, there are lots of ways that fires cause damage to aquatic systems.  There’s still one thing to consider with streams though: the water doesn’t stay in one place.  You know what that means: the nasty combination of polluted, low-oxygen water, ash, and sediment doesn’t remain within the burn area.  Instead, it flows downstream.  Rivers many miles from wildfires might thus suffer due to the fire too.  Also, the streams in mountain ranges are often headwater streams, the sources of rivers.  Damage to the headwaters of a river can have consequences very far downstream and may even cause damage to an entire watershed.

The fires in Arizona may have caused some very long-term or even permanent damage to some streams impacted by the wildfires this year.  Some of the fires ravaged areas that are home to rare or endangered aquatic insects.  One species of riffle beetle in the Chiricahuas is ONLY found in one stream in that range.  If the fires damaged that stream sufficiently to kill the beetles, it will have caused their extinction.  Likewise, the White Mountains are home to a protected springsnail that lived right in the middle of the burn area.  Will that species, or the very rare caddisfly known from the area, disappear for good?  Even the things that aren’t particularly rare might not reappear after the streams recover.  If individuals from other populations are too far away to recolonize the damaged streams, some species might never return to burn area streams.

Three Forks

This area, where the protected springsnail is located, probably doesn't look much like this anymore...

I think it will be interesting to see what happens to the streams within the burn areas over the next few years.  I intend to collect from the White Mountain streams to see how long it takes for the insects in several streams there to recover from the impacts of the Wallow Fire.  By comparing what is found in the stream now and into the future to what I’ve collected in the past, I’ll be able to monitor the stream conditions rather effectively over time.  I really hope those streams recover!  I doubt they will ever be the same again, but I’d hate it if the actions of people destroy species that we’ve barely even begun to understand.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Science Sunday: Online Citizen Science and Scientific Research

The dragonfly swarming season is over, but I want to keep the Sunday posts going. From now until the swarming season starts up again in June, Sunday will become Science Sunday!  There is likely to be a rather random assortment of post types here, but they’ll all relate to insect science.  I might not post every week, but I hope you’ll enjoy it!

For my first Science Sunday, I’m going to contribute to Morgan Jackson’s Scientists and Social Media series on his excellent Biodiversity in Focus blog by discussing internet-based citizen science and how these projects can help scientists study biological problems that are difficult to research.  My dragonfly swarm project has given me some experience in this area and I already talked about it briefly in my last year-end summary for my project, but I find had more to say.  I shall do so now!

I think that scientists are just beginning to understand the power of internet-based citizen science projects and the new avenues of research that these projects open to scientists.  Although not all scientists are ready to accept that non-scientists can contribute meaningful and valuable scientific data (I am not one of them!), many are beginning to make use of a science-hungry, enthusiastic public to tackle scientific goals that might not have been otherwise possible.  Consider a few scenarios:

1) You wish to study a plant or animal that is rare or you suspect is extinct.
2) You wish to study a behavior that is rarely observed in nature.
3) You wish to track movements/migrations of animals over large geographic areas.
4) You wish to study an organism/behavior that has an extreme seasonality or is dependent on unpredictable weather patterns or other conditions.
5) You wish to determine the natural distribution of an organism, or track changes in its distribution over time.
6) You wish to document every species within a geographic area of interest.
7) You wish to study biological phenomena that occur either regularly or irregularly over long periods of time (i.e. there are many months/years between events).

These sorts of problems, and many like them, are exactly suited to internet-based citizen science!  In each case, these studies require many people, lots of money, lots of time, or some combination of the three.  Let’s consider a scenario where a researcher is interested in, say, an insect that they suspect has been extinct because the last known sighting of it was in the 1930’s.  Where does that researcher even look for the insect?  If there is decent geographical data for the species (unlikely), you can start where it used to be.  But what if climate change or some other driver of environmental change has destroyed its traditional range?  The researcher might look to see if there was information about its habitat requirements, look for areas that meet those requirements, and start looking for the species there, assuming that information is available.

And what if there are only 5 specimens of that species left in the entire world?  Can you really expect one person to find even one member of a species that has so few individuals?  Think about how much time, money, and effort a researcher would have to put into tracking down the species of interest just to say whether it is extinct or not.  Imagine too how little chance that researcher has of convincing a funding agency that it’s worth confirming that the species is extinct or not.  Why would that agency want to pay for something (especially if the work is expensive) when there’s a real likelihood that the researcher will fail?

I believe that these sorts of impediments create an enormous barrier that prevents scientists from pursuing many areas of research.  Honestly, if you had a choice between an easy project that is sure to be funded and will generate good results, why would you ever consider doing a project that might not produce any results?  Justifiably, scientists often go the easy, fundable route and only dream about how they would tackle some of those impossible problems if only there was an easier way to do it…

That’s where internet-based citizen science projects come into play!  These projects allow researchers to actually pursue some of those difficult or nigh-impossible research problems, and much more easily/cheaply than if they use the traditional model of scientific research.  Let’s continue with the problem of determining whether an insect is extinct or not and consider it as a citizen science project instead.

The researcher makes information about the project and the species of interest available on a webpage and provides participants with a means for reporting data.  She might then promote the project at science outreach events, to her colleagues, to her students, on Twitter and Facebook, so that people start to learn about the project and visit the website for more information, sign up to participate if necessary.  Over time, the researcher builds up a network of people who read the information on the website (their training!), know what they’re looking for, and know how to report sightings.  These people are likely spread over a wide area and will be out and about at different times according to their personal schedules, maximizing the chance that they’ll come across an individual if it’s not extinct.  The odds of 100, 1000, even 3000 people finding that one individual (maybe even 3 or 4!) in five are much greater than a researcher working alone.  The chances of project success are greatly improved too!  Meanwhile, all the researcher has to do is sort through the data coming in, determine which data are useful and which are not, and keep the website going, maybe provide some results so participants can see how their data has contributed to the project.  Later, she’ll publish the results, making the information available to other scientists.  And, she can do all this rather easily with a small group of project administrators (maybe only one!), very little money (sometimes none!), and with very little time and effort.

I believe that citizen science projects are the key to tackling many difficult biological problems such as those I listed above.  By generating networks of trained volunteers, scientists can remotely, simply, and cheaply collect data on subjects that might be otherwise too expensive, too time consuming, or too likely to fail using traditional scientific practices.  I know firsthand that scientists can benefit hugely from citizen scientists!  I am currently the sole administrator of the Dragonfly Swarm Project, a project I do in my minimal free time and without any funding – and I’m collecting a ton of data.  Citizen scientists benefit by increasing their knowledge of the biological phenomenon of interest and the warm fuzzy feeling they get from knowing they’re contributing to science without getting a science degree.   They get to interact with other citizen scientists and the researcher(s) administering the project.  Science in general benefits from citizen science too as projects increase scientific literacy and support for scientists and science funding.  It’s a win-win-win situation!

Not every scientific problem is going to be solved via citizen science as many problems require highly specialized knowledge that one can only acquire through years of training.  I couldn’t, for example, train 1000 people to use an electron microscope to study the structure of aquatic insects eggs.  However, there are many areas of research that are currently being ignored by biologists where I think citizen science can play an invaluable role.  In fact, citizen science projects are already making a difference!  Look at School of Ants or the Lost Ladybug Project!  School of Ants researchers are learning so much about the distribution of ants in urban environments and the Lost Ladybug Project uncovered a rare ladybug that no one had seen in nearly 30 years!  Projects like these probably wouldn’t be nearly as successful or as scientifically valuable without the help of the citizen scientists who participate and they’re perfect examples of the power of internet-based citizen science.

I predict that the recent rise in the number of citizen science projects will continue to climb as researchers begin to realize how powerful these projects can be.  In the meantime, I intend to continue with my own citizen science project and contributing to others so that we can all start to understand those dark, undiscovered corners of our world a little better.

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If you’re interested in how blogs and other forms of social media are improving science, I encourage you to visit Morgan Jackson’s first Scientists and Social Media post!

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