The Right to Science: How Citizen Science is Changing the Game

She didn’t have much time for exploring tidepools that day, like she usually would. So Robin Agarwal, a resident of the Bay Area, contented herself with going down to the docks by Redwood City with her daughter, Marisa Agarwal, to hunt for nudibranches. What the Agarwals pulled up on March 29, 2016, however, was like nothing they’d seen before. The sea-slug-like creature was about an inch long, semi-transparent, covered in vivid green and maroon spots, and with long streamers extending from its body.

“Dendronotus orientalis discovered in San Francisco Bay in March 2016” by Robin Agarwal, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
“Dendronotus orientalis discovered in San Francisco Bay in March 2016” by Robin Agarwal, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

As it turned out, the nudibranch they’d found was Dendronotus orientalis. This species had never before been found on the west coast of North America: its native territory is Asia, a whole ocean away from the Bay Area. The discovery was significant enough that Marisa Agarwal, then a high school senior, has submitted a paper for review to the scientific journal BioInvasion Records.

Here’s the twist: Robin and Marisa Agarwal were no marine biologists. They were amateur malacologists who simply enjoyed searching for nudibranchs in their spare time, and Robin Agarwal admitted that as a non-professional, she wouldn’t have been able to identify the nudibranch – and wouldn’t have realized how extraordinary the find was. The implications of the discovery only came to light because of a little app called iNaturalist.

 

Well, Naturally

iNaturalist belongs to a new category of scientific research, called citizen science. Citizen science projects allow non-researchers, such as Agarwal and her daughter, to become part of exciting studies and help professional scientists. Large organizations of amateur scientists, or even just people with spare time on their hands, can collect and analyze data that would take years for a scientist to examine on their own. Many projects are available through online platforms like Zooniverse and CitSci, and the huge variety allows volunteers to study anything from documents written during Shakespeare’s lifetime to the weather on Mars.

The app iNaturalist, in particular, allows anyone to take photos of animals and plants, whether or not they can identify them, and upload them onto the iNaturalist website. The organisms can then be identified either by scientists or amateurs. If enough people identify the organism as a certain species, the observation becomes research-grade, and scientists can use the data for conducting studies.

 

Mt. Tam Through the Years

Alison Young, a Citizen Science Engagement Coordinator working at the California Academy of Sciences, explained that iNaturalist is particularly attractive to both citizens and biologists.

“It makes it so people can document the creatures that they see all around them, whether it’s in their own backyard or when they’re out in the tidepools or when they’re hiking in the park.” Young said.

Young is the co-director of many citizen science projects conducted by the Academy around the Bay Area. As such, she’s seen how powerful a tool citizen science can be. Climate change and habitat loss are threatening biodiversity all over California, but citizen science gives amateur biologists and professional researchers a way to fight back.

“To protect species, we have to know where they are,” Young said. “There’s absolutely no way that scientists alone can actively document where everything is.”

That’s the goal of most of the Academy’s citizen science projects – to observe and photograph biodiversity throughout the Bay Area, from Pillar Point Reef to downtown San Francisco.

For example, the Academy started a project recording plant species in the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed. The purpose was to create a baseline of species found there, so that the Marin Municipal Water District could keep track of any changes and better manage the watershed.  They chose to rely on citizen science, for the same reason that countless other projects do – it would be too time-consuming and inefficient for solo scientists to gather the huge volumes of data they needed. And they did it all through iNaturalist.

That project is wrapping up now, and the Academy’s researchers have been able to start finding patterns in the data by comparing what citizen scientists found to what was in the Academy’s previous collections, some of which date from more than a century ago.

Lake Lagunitas on Mt. Tamalpais is part of the Marin Municipal Water District watershed. The watershed, covering more than 21,600 acres, would be too big for scientists to comprehensively record its biodiversity without the aid of volunteer citizen scientists. (Photo: “Lake Lagunitas, on Mt. Tamalpais's northern slope.” by Richard Wood, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)
Lake Lagunitas on Mt. Tamalpais is part of the Marin Municipal Water District watershed. The watershed, covering more than 21,600 acres, would be too big for scientists to comprehensively record its biodiversity without the aid of volunteer citizen scientists. (Photo: “Lake Lagunitas, on Mt. Tamalpais’s northern slope.” by Richard Wood, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Of course, lots of things have changed since then. For one thing, fire supression strategies used on Mt. Tam have led to the decline of plant species that are “fire-followers”, and depend on regular fires to grow successfully. On the other hand, wildflowers that the researchers and citizens didn’t see during the five years of severe drought in California have started to reappear with the rains over the last two winters. In total, the volunteers found about a hundred species of plants that hadn’t been recorded on Mt. Tam before.

These new visitors, unfortunately, included unwelcome invasive weeds. Yet even that had an upside – because of volunteer efforts, the invasives were spotted in time, and the invaisve populations were removed before they became a problem. So the Mt. Tamalpais watershed project is a perfect example of how citizen science can protect and document biodiversity, right here in the Bay Area.

 

To Blitz or not to Blitz?

A disadvantage of projects like the one on Mt. Tam is that they’re long-term, and require a lot of commitment from volunteers. For those that are unwilling or unable to participate, there’s a short-term option: the bioblitz. The bioblitz, unlike surveying projects that extend over many years, is a one-time event. Volunteers go out for two to three hours in their city, county, or state parks, in an organized group or on their own, and document as many species as they possibly can – all using iNaturalist.

Bioblitzes, though brief, are valuable. In one bioblitz, Young estimates, a group of volunteers might find a hundred to two hundred and fifty unique species, packing quite a punch for just a couple hours of searching. Such efforts allow city parks that lack a species list, or only have an outdated one, to update it; and like long-term projects, scientists get a better idea of the range and population of different species.

Intrigued? You’re in luck. The California Academy of Sciences organizes bioblitzes on a regular basis, and anyone can register. However, you don’t have to wait till the next bioblitz to start making observations. You can sign up on iNaturalist for free here. Joining it might just open your eyes up to the wonders of nature that abound in the Bay Area, even in the midst of the suburbs – instead of seeing just an ugly weed in your backyard, you might be able to identify it as Aegilops triuncialis, or barbed oatgrass, before tearing it up.

On a more serious note, you’d get to be involved in the fight to save the Earth’s ecosystems, something that will continue only with the support of volunteers and citizens. The difficulty of addressing the huge challenges of global warming and habitat loss can’t be understated, but with citizen science, you don’t have to have a PhD to help. “Getting everyone out there and documenting biodiversity… really will help us moving into the future to conserve species of importance, to predict where they’re going to be in the future, to save those habitats,” Young said. “Citizen science is the only way to really get that information.” So no matter your career path, know that through citizen science, you can make a difference in the world.