by Michael Todd
photography by Sofie Kirk
It used to be that you needed a PhD to be cited as a contributor to experiments or reports in major scientific journals. But those days are gone. Welcome to the brave new world of citizen science, where ordinary people from all walks of life work closely with bona fide scientists to collect data; submit photos of flora, fauna or phenomena; or assist with 24-hour binge field surveys to catalogue the biodiversity of threatened natural areas. If you’re not familiar with the term “citizen science,” it has been defined as crowd-sourced or civic science.
Part of this renaissance in the role citizens have to play can be attributed to today’s technology. Cell phones, email, databases and personal computers have given citizens the power not only to store data and photos but to send it to central research repositories at universities from remote locales all over the world – anywhere, in fact, where there is a wire running to a telephone pole or a satellite capable of receiving and transmitting information.
Science is now in the hands of citizens globally and has never been more accessible to the average person. Simply put, citizen science is research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or non-professional scientists. For instance, in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) there’s a Canadian group devoted to encouraging public participation in scientific work (citizenscientists.ca) – a volunteer-run not-for-profit that focuses on ecological monitoring, environmental training and education. The organization has been monitoring stream health at various sites throughout the Rouge River watershed in Toronto and the GTA since its establishment in 2001.
Not only do citizen scientists provide valuable information about our natural world, but they are also often an important human and economic resource, since many experiments can be vast in scope, both geographically and in terms of equipment needed. In some cases, citizen scientists also help fundraise for the equipment needed to undertake some experiments, in addition to contributing through observation and collection of data.
Time is also an important factor. Most research projects out of universities involve a handful of academic researchers who simply can’t do all the work necessary by themselves, let alone cope with the travel required in, say, studying migratory birds (which necessitates data collection all over North America). So, citizen science enables researchers to cover wider geographic areas and, in many cases, carry out studies over longer time periods than their restricted budgets might otherwise permit.
Citizen scientists can do environmental monitoring while walking to work or on vacation, and the ready access to fingertip technologies to store and transmit data means professional scientists can receive timely, accurate information in quantities unimaginable 20 years ago.
You can find a citizen science group for almost any research area imaginable, including FrogWatch, IceWatch, PlantWatch, the Common Loon Monitoring Citizen Science Project, monarch butterflies – and even a project called WormWatch.
York University has a number of professors who run studies on projects in the field that regularly employ the skills and hard work of citizens who are interested in science and conservation, and who relish being outdoors.
In 2015, biology professor Roberto Quinlan from York’s Faculty of Science and Paul Frost, a professor at Trent University, worked with the Earthwatch Institute to offer a citizen scientist training session at York’s Keele campus for the institute’s FreshWater Watch program – a US$100-million global partnership between HSBC, Earthwatch, WaterAid and the World Wildlife Fund.
Quinlan talked to volunteers about river and pond ecosystems, and outlined issues threatening the quality of freshwater resources. “Citizen science programs are a powerful tool for environmental scientists,” says Quinlan. “Multiple pairs of hands can collect more data from more sites than even the most hard-working and dedicated scientists could ever hope to do on their own.”
At Stong Pond at York’s Keele campus, participants received hands-on training on how to correctly sample and assess the water quality of a local pond or stream.
Once trained, the citizen scientists headed back to their communities to collect local data on ponds throughout the GTA, including taking water samples for chemical analyses. Their samples were sent to lead researchers for analysis and inclusion in a global database of freshwater quality.
Bridget Stutchbury, a York University biology professor and graduate program director, along with her collaborator and former postdoctoral fellow Kevin Fraser, runs a world-renowned project tracking the migratory patterns of the purple martin (the largest North American swallow) by attaching miniature geolocators to the birds’ bodies as tiny backpacks. Stutchbury was the first person in the scientific world to use this technique on songbirds.
They’ve given up nesting in natural crevices or tree cavities and now nest solely in bird boxes. Elaborate purple martin houses were very fashionable in the 19th century
“Purple martins are capable of travelling incredible distances – from North America to Brazil – sometimes in just a matter of days,” she says. “We use geolocators, like a GPS but using solar data linked to latitude and longitude, to track the migratory patterns of these 50-gram birds. We want to see what routes they use and where they rest on the way and eventually overwinter in the tropics. Some populations are declining more steeply than others. That may be because some routes and overwintering areas may expose them to more predators, or perhaps their food resources are not quite so abundant depending where they go.”
One theory is that northern populations of purple martins may be overshooting their regular Amazon wintering grounds and landing instead in areas like southern Brazil. “The latter is a totally different area from the Amazon – it’s deforested, it has more towns with agriculture and pesticides and the people don’t want birds sleeping in their parks by the thousands, so birds get harassed.”
To map out where the purple martin breeding population is going across the entire northeastern section of North America, Stutchbury says geolocators and citizen scientists are a must. “Their breeding range is huge, and if we want to fully map out where they go and get a complete, overall picture, we need to do studies in all these different places and there’s no way in the world I could raise enough money for the travel and equipment and try to do this all by myself.”
One fact that makes purple martins the ideal bird for citizen scientists to study, says Stutchbury, is they have completely changed their nesting behaviour over the past 200 years. “They’ve given up nesting in natural crevices or tree cavities and now nest solely in bird boxes. Elaborate purple martin houses were very fashionable in the 19th century, for instance. And over time, the birds developed dense colonies and now nest 100 per cent in artificially created homes. And so, because purple martins are in these bird houses and because they are numerous as backyard birds, non-scientists have started programs where they do nest checks – put leg bands on adult birds, band the nestlings, and keep track of how many young are being born and survive and what birds return, and so on. Then they report all this data to the banding office and conservation organizations that keep track of reproductive success, such as the Purple Martin Conservation Association.”
Volunteer citizen scientist Nanette Mickle is one such person. Mickle lives in northern Virginia and learned about Stutchbury’s work in a roundabout way when she attended a lecture given by her at a Purple Martin Conservation Association conference in 2008.
A long-term and proud overseer of her own purple martin colony, Mickle wanted her colony to participate in the geolocator research, which was then in its first stages of development.
Mickle says she has no science background per se, but she has had an abiding interest in birds in general, and in her purple martin colony in particular. She had even taken a bird handling course before she heard about Stutchbury’s geolocator program (anyone who works with wild birds needs formal training and a permit to do so).
“Marlin Perkins, host of the TV show ‘Wild Kingdom,’ was my hero growing up. And ever since, I’ve always been interested in biology even though I have a business degree and not a science one,” says Mickle, who figures she has spent thousands of hours collecting data and observing her birds. “I don’t regret a minute of it.”
What motivates her? “I think in addition to loving what I’m doing, I’m always learning new things about the birds that could possibly help me to save them from decline.
“If people want to get involved, they can join a bird club like the Bluebird Society that monitors nests. And you can always take classes on bird banding and volunteer at banding stations. There are also lots of opportunities to do weekend bird spotting or the Christmas bird count or use new mobile app tools like eBird to help collect scientific data every time you see birds. And it’s always nice to have your contributions recognized in published scientific journals.”
Scott MacIvor recently completed his PhD at York under biology professor and bee specialist Laurence Packer, doing his research in Packer’s “bee lab.” He is now pursuing postdoctoral work in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. While at York, MacIvor’s research reflected his interests in urban ecology and, specifically, the ecology of cities.
What attracted him to bees for his doctoral studies, he says, was that there was just “something” about bees that makes them perfectly suited to living in the urban landscapes they nest in and forage around.
“Gardening is the No. 1 hobby in North America, and in Toronto there are a lot of gardens and green spaces, so the opportunity to study how bees nest in them is perfectly suited to this environment,” he says. “In fact, our lab has determined Toronto and the GTA is one of the most bee-diverse regions in southern Ontario and in all of Canada, with 360 species recorded,” he says.
MacIvor wondered why some species of bees do particularly well in an urban environment and decided to use bee nest boxes – something rather like a birdhouse except for bees. Specifically, MacIvor was interested in cavity-nesting bees: “They’re a very specific group who nest in holes in plant stems, wood, but also live in nail holes and cracks in brick and mortar.”
A nuanced way of sampling these species was to artificially create habitats. “In the past, we learned we could house these bees and move them around, which is great for alternative agriculture pollination management,” says MacIvor. “But now these actions are becoming a part of gardening as more people are becoming more concerned about declining bee populations.”
MacIvor recruited interested citizens from around the city who would allow him to put bee boxes in their backyard gardens. “This way I could leave them there for six months and then collect them, open them up and take a close look at the nests, bee diversity, the pollen collected, parasites, sex ratios and much more. It’s amazing just how much data comes out of these boxes.”
The bee nest boxes – 200 in all, hosted by volunteer citizen scientists, who also contributed to observations – allowed MacIvor to sample more bee sites over a more diverse range of habitats than would normally be possible for field work in cities, limited by congested traffic and access to private space. “The role of the citizen scientists who worked with me was essentially to protect the boxes and maintain them,” he says.
He found willing recruits through talks he gave at public events on bees, at gardening clubs and at community gardens. Bee box locations spanned the city, with sites at Humber College in Etobicoke, at the Scarborough Bluffs, in downtown Toronto and in neighbourhoods north of the core to Richmond Hill.
“I certainly couldn’t have done it without the support of citizen scientists such as Deborah Chute, who offered up her garden for a bee nest box,” says MacIvor. “Cities are made up primarily of private land, so if I want to study bees’ diversity patterns – as I did – it was important to get permission to use people’s spaces. I had access to all these backyards across the GTA where we located our boxes.
“Scientists are becoming increasingly dependent on larger and larger sets of data, so using citizen scientists to significantly increase the number of observations is invaluable. Today, most people have access to a camera and the internet, which enables citizen scientists to participate when before it would have been very difficult.”
They were hosting a bee day and talked about these bee “condos,” and mentioned that York University was doing a study, so I looked into it
For her part, Chute says she was more than happy to participate in MacIvor’s three-year study. “I’m in Richmond Hill,” she says. “My whole yard is garden and about 85 per cent of it is filled with native species. I’d seen a lot of wild bees around and I was interested in encouraging them. I learned about Scott and his work through Evergreen Brick Works. They were hosting a bee day and talked about these bee ‘condos,’ and mentioned that York University was doing a study, so I looked into it.”
One of the primary motivators for Chute to participate in MacIvor’s study was her knowledge that wild bees are under threat. “I’ve always been interested in natural things,” she says, “and planting a native species garden in turn attracted a great variety of fascinating insects, especially wild bees. As I began to realize that, I started researching what kinds of insects were attracted to various kinds of plants and then my growing interest in bees developed as part of that. I never actually thought of myself as a citizen scientist, despite Scott citing my contributions in his research papers. I really just thought that if I could use my garden as a way of helping bees and helping the researchers who study them at the same time then that would be a great opportunity. And I’ve learned so much through my affiliation with Scott, who helped me identify various wild bee species and encouraged me to send him photos of specimens I was curious about.
“Would I encourage people to get engaged in citizen science? Absolutely! I think the spinoffs are so varied and you learn a lot. Also, it encourages a feeling of responsibility for the environment.”