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Citizen Science: Help Scientists Investigate the Natural World

Nancy West
July 1, 2020

If you enjoy observing the natural world, if you’re curious about cycles and changes in living things or the environment, if you’re interested in the waters of Casco Bay and the organisms living in it, then you can help scientists with their research. Modern scientists work with such large amounts of data that some ask non-scientists to help collect or analyze data. You could be one of these “citizen scientists.” You could observe nature where you live, walk, fish, boat, or swim or you could examine images online from exotic places on Earth or even elsewhere in the Universe. This smorgasbord of outdoor and indoor citizen science projects will introduce you to opportunities to examine the world in which we live, while also authentically helping scientists.

I’ve listed a few recommended projects to get involved with.

Outdoor Projects

Lost Ladybug Project — best in summer

When you see ladybugs, take their pictures. By photographing them, you will help scientists at Cornell University survey the population and distribution of spotted and plain ladybug species. You can photograph them on the plant or collect them, let them settle down, and photograph them against a plain background. Directions include how to find ladybugs, how to take their pictures to be most useful, and how to collect them.

This project is particularly well suited to children. Participate by visiting the project’s  website.

eBird — year-round

Bird-watching takes on a whole new meaning if you participate in eBird. In this project, birdwatchers report the birds they see or hear and where they saw the birds to an international database. This allows ornithologists to analyze biodiversity as well as to monitor the timing of migration and nesting. The project also allows more casual birders to see what birds have been identified in their area. When reporting birds, the website offers a checklist of birds one is likely to see; unusual sightings are reviewed by regional experts.

For birders of any age.  Participate through the international website and a Maine version

Signs of the Season — spring through fall in New England

With Maine’s winters, signs of spring —even dandelions— are most welcome. But, eventually so are signs of summer, fall, and the crystalline cold of winter. As the calendar marches along, we all note changes in our world. In this project, you define a plot of land that you observe for specific changes, things like the emergence of dandelions, the arrival of robins, or the blooming of lilacs. In the summer, you might note when loon chicks fledge, when your wild Maine blueberries ripen, when pine cones open, or when milkweed fruit drops. Later in the year you might look for when your red maples turn red. You choose among 22 plant and animal species to monitor. People who live on the coast can also observe the shape, bumpiness, and color of rockweed bubbles to indicate their reproductive state. While all of these observations vary by year, a general trend towards earlier spring is of interest to scientists who study climate change.

Highly suitable for children. Participate through the Signs of the Seasons website and its “Resources for Coastal Observers” link.

Maine Loon Project — Third Saturday in July

The Maine Loon Project is an annual count of loons and their chicks. On July 18, 2020, citizen scientists will boat quietly on Maine’s lakes and ponds to count loons, as volunteers have done since 1983 (The population is increasing!) The project dovetails with Signs of the Seasons’ Loon monitoring, which includes loons’ behaviors (feeding, calling, courtship, nesting, and the fledging of chicks).

For loon lovers of any age. Participate in Maine Audubon’s Maine Loon Project and Signs of the Seasons.

Brook Trout Survey Project — fishing season in Maine

Fish for Brook Trout in Maine to help scientists identify where wild populations live and breed. You can fish hundreds of remote ponds to find populations that have not been surveyed by fisheries biologists and have not been stocked. Alternatively, you can fish coastal streams to survey Brook Trout as they return from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. Both of these surveys will inform future decisions about how to protect and manage populations.

For anyone who loves to fish, no matter their age. Learn more from Maine Audubon.

iNaturalist — year-round

If you’re the kind of person who notices wildflowers, birds, insects, oddball shrubs or trees, iNaturalist is interested in your observations. By taking pictures of plants, fungi, and animals and submitting them to iNaturalist, you contribute to biodiversity data. A combination of Artificial Intelligence and humans identify what you observed; when two identifications agree on what you saw, the observation is considered to be “research grade” and is shared with the Biodiversity Information Facility for use by anyone—including scientists who might be interested in changing biodiversity, conservation, climate change, or other grand science subjects.

Suitable for any nature lover who can take a photo. To participate, go to the website of iNaturalist or download the iNaturalist app on your smartphone.

Water Reporter — year-round on Casco Bay, one-time or continuing

Friends of Casco Bay asks you to photograph noteworthy conditions on the bay and to submit them to use in monitoring the cleanliness of water, its ability to support marine life, and the status of our shoreline. If you’re on the shore or in a boat and see a sea turtle or sunfish, a cluster of jellyfish, a funky algal bloom, beach erosion, pollution, or unusual flooding, you can photograph and report what you see using the Water Reporter app. You could even commit to taking the same photograph from the same place over time during king tides in order to document sea level rise.

For anyone with a camera. Learn more about how Friends of Casco Bay uses citizen scientists’ observations and how to participate by visiting their website

King Tide Project — year round in Harpswell

If you live in or visit Harpswell, you can help the Town’s Conservation Commission document sea level during king tides. In low spots on roads around town, you’ll see posts with white octagonal platforms—too small and low for ospreys to occupy. These posts mark where flooding is already a problem or is likely to become one with storms and sea level rise. Photos  will show the impact on roads, bridges, property, and ecosystems. Citizen scientists take photographs by leaning their phone or camera against sides of the octagon and submitting them through the app Anecdata. 

Suitable for adults or for children under the close supervision of adults because of traffic. To learn more go to the Town of Harpswell’s website.

Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network — year round

CoCoRaHS is for weather lovers. Citizen scientists monitor precipitation whenever it falls to provide detailed maps. How much falls in your backyard, for instance? How does that compare to what falls at your favorite Maine lake or camp or ski area? CoCoRaHS began with a terrible flood in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1997, went international in 2010, and could become part of your routine. By measuring rain and snow, you would help meteorologists fine-tune their modeling; climatologists study changes in precipitation; and engineers, builders, and farmers know what to plan for.

Anyone who can read a rain gauge can participate. CoCoRaHS’s website guides you in acquiring an appropriate rain gauge and snow board (but not the kind for winter slopes), as well as instructions for how to measure and report data.

Indoor Projects—year-round

Anyone can contribute significantly to scientific research without stepping a foot outside. You can identify animals from African savannas, count penguins in Antarctica, describe the shape and movement of aurora borealis, count cells in fossil leaves (to interpret ancient atmospheres), transcribe historical data on robin nesting, and find asteroids in Hubble Space Telescope images. These are a few of the dozens of science projects seeking help identifying, transcribing, interpreting, or analyzing data on Zooniverse. The catalog of projects is varied and changes as citizen scientists pitch in on projects that intrigue them and as scientists tap into the power of people’s curiosity and good will.

Suitable for any age (kids love counting penguins), for rainy weather, and for justifiably feeling as if you’re contributing to the benefit of the world.  Find something cool at Zooniverse.