Citizen Science is a hot newish area of conservation and ecology that scientists around the world are employing in their research. Basically, it is the idea that anyone with powers of observation and curiosity can help out in science- such as by counting the birds or butterflies they see in their yard, noting the flowers bees are attracted to, or documenting ZomBees that come to their lights at night. There is some contention in citizen science, sometimes with the quality of the data collected, but also with calling participants “scientists” because, well, you wouldn’t call a person certified in CPR a “doctor”. While I understand this issue- especially because I’ve spent many years of my life working towards a degree I feel really deserves that many years!- I also think Citizen Science is awesome. It represents a way that we scientists can get general data of, say, species whereabouts, but most importantly, it is a way the public- a banker, a medical doctor, a salesman- can explore their interest in and reconnecting with nature, reducing Nature Deficit Disorder.
On top of it all, Citizen Science can and is making a difference in conservation. Perhaps a great example with real outcomes for species conservation is the role of nonscientists in listing species under the Endangered Species Act- something that has been done for years before the term “Citizen Science” became popular. In order for a species to be listed as threatened or endangered, a petition must be filed to or by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A new article in Science compared species listed by everyday people to those listed by the USFWS staff. They found that petitions by citizens tended to lead to the listing of more truly threatened species, especially those threatened by development. This does not surprise me because I know there are so many dedicated naturalists out there that love and want to protect their neighborhood biodiversity- and to them I say Thank You!
The success of Endangered Species listings is just one way that everyday people can make such a difference in biodiversity conservation. Just think, if it wasn’t for thoughtful citizens the following species wouldn’t be protected (I’m highlighting the insects here, because the spotted owl and lynx get all the press :)): Myrtle’s and Behren’s Silverspot Butterflies, Kretschmarr Cave Mold Beetle, Zayante Band-Winged Grasshopper, Comal Springs Dryopid Beetle, Delhi Sands Flower Loving Fly, and my very own Ohlone tiger beetle! (although scientists were involved on that one).
Once species are petitioned to be listed, the USFWS can sometimes “sit on” those potential listings for a long time, but have a time limit by which they must either list the species or determine it doesn’t need listing. One organization that has been essential to, ah, pushing the USFWS to list species is the Center for Biological Diversity– because they could be extinct by the time they get around to it! Not to blame the USFWS because I know many of Service scientists and they are often very good biologists with a love for species conservation, they just have little staff and money. This is one reason it is so important to have congress fund the USFWS. With staff and money, they can do their job to protect our nation’s amazing biodiversity! Along with your help, of course…