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Getting in On the Ground Floor of Citizen Science

August 29, 2014

Black swallowtail caterpillar  One of the benefits of having a field station associated with your natural history museum is having an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of some interesting research projects. We do a lot of citizen science at Prairie Ridge, and this summer we were selected as a pilot site for a new citizen science project looking at the insect food base for birds called Caterpillars Count. We’ve been testing protocols and collecting data for the project all summer, and it’s been a lot of fun. Let me take you behind the scenes of a citizen science project that’s in development!

Caterpillars Count is part of a research effort led by Dr. Allen Hurlbert, an ornithologist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Dr. Hurlbert is interested in some big questions about birds, such as whether bird population sizes track the availability of insects and whether birds migrate to North Carolina at the same time that insects become available in the spring. These are questions that are best answered by having a lot of people on the ground who are monitoring both the bird and insect populations. So far, Dr. Hurlbert has monitored bird populations through bird banding stations, sites where researchers capture birds in mist nets, place a uniquely numbered bracelet around their leg, and track individual birds via a centralized federal database of band numbers. We have a strong bird banding program at Prairie Ridge. Insect populations are a bit more complicated to monitor as there are no big monitoring programs to track insect abundance during the year. So, Dr. Hurlbert is turning to citizen scientists for help.

aphids on hollyCaterpillars Count focuses specifically on the insects that live on or under leaves on trees, the food base for foliage gleaning birds. By having citizen scientists examine leaves on trees and report the number and types of insects they find, you get can a good census of the local insect density and compare the insect population to the bird population at that time. At a previous pilot site, Dr. Hurlbert had volunteers count insects on 400 leaves. Unfortunately, even when there are LOTS of insects out and about, the chances of your seeing an insect on any given leaf on a tree is pretty small. Volunteers would often return from their leaf surveys with no insects spotted at all.

At Prairie Ridge, we’re testing an expanded protocol. Instead of 400 leaves, we’re looking at 2000 leaves per week. That’s 50 leaves on each of 40 trees spread along the Forest Trail. As you might imagine, it takes some time to look at 2000 leaves, even with a group of people, but with practice we’ve gotten the time down to about an hour for our group of 4 dedicated volunteers working together each week. We make notes about what’s difficult about the protocol, what we like and don’t like about the project, and we send the information back to Dr. Hurlbert so he can consider making changes that will make his project more user-friendly. My group of weekly volunteers consists of adults, but we’re working to get kids involved as well. We’ve incorporated Caterpillars Count into our Citizen Science Saturday walks to reach a variety of ages, all the while taking notes about what works and what doesn’t to send back to Dr. Hurlbert for evaluation.

Long legged flyOne of the best things about getting involved in the early stages of a project like this is the ability to provide feedback that will help improve the project before it is released on a larger scale. Because we are on the ground doing the project every week, my volunteers have tested the protocols extensively. We know, for example, that it can easily take more than an hour to complete the whole protocol, but the work goes faster with a group. This means that to be the most successful, Dr. Hurlbert should target environmental education centers and similar facilities that get groups of people regularly. We’ve also learned that most beginners have a hard time telling a true bug from a beetle, a fly from a bee or wasp, even with the provided guide. We’ve made some suggestions for improvements to the guide to help future participants identify their insects more easily.

It’s rather special to be given an opportunity to test a citizen science protocol like this, and it’s been a good experience. My group of volunteers knows that not only are they collecting scientific data that is useful in a real research project, but they’re also helping make Caterpillars Count a fun and enjoyable project for other citizen scientists. We’ll continue collecting data for a few more weeks and then take a break for the winter. With any luck, the project will be ready to roll out in the spring, and we’ll be able to offer Caterpillars Count to even more volunteers. And if not, we’ll do more field testing. Either way, we hope to get more people involved in this interesting new project – and learn a little more about the amazing world we live in!

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