Better Together: The Power of Community Science

posted in: Local Conservation | 0
A baby turtle crawling past a sign that says, in large bold font, "Have you SEEN this TURTLE?" with an image of an adult turtle on it.
When searching for rare species, having a whole community of eyes and ears can make a world of difference!

Have you ever heard of community science? Also known as “citizen science” (but open to everyone, regardless of citizenship), it’s an innovative approach that seeks to harness the power of people and technology to let scientists research questions that would be otherwise impossible. Community science can be done by anyone, anywhere, at scales as small as your home or your yard and as large as the entire galaxy – or images of it, at least. 

Although it may be a new term to many readers, community science is as old as science itself. Even before modern scientific thought was codified, people in every profession have made and shared observations about the world around them. As the Enlightenment swept through Europe and dedicated scientists formalized empirical methods of inquiry, everyday people still collected useful data from the natural world. Hunters shot animals that seemed strange to them and sent the prepared skins to experts for research and classification. Farmers observed the patterns in the weather and shared their observations, which allowed for the creation of almanacs. Sailors and maritime voyagers charted the stars and the locations of islands, reefs, and other points of interest to create maps and charts usable by all. None of these people were “scientists” by trade, but their keen senses and careful records advanced science.

Today, professional scientists and researchers pose questions about nature, but the answers to those questions are often elusive. Limitations of time, funding, and available personnel can make it hard to gather enough data to support or reject a hypothesis. It’s a big world out there, after all, and there is a lot of nature to gather data on; detecting the effects of any given factor in such a huge and complex system requires a lot of statistical power, which means lots and lots of observations. How can scientists solve questions of global climate change or the movements of migratory birds without having to travel and collect data across many years and many miles? 

Enter community science. With the advent of instantaneous global communication, people all over the world can share their observations of the natural world for the benefit of science. Thousands of websites allow interested members of the public to submit their observations, from the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program for weather patterns to NASA’s Exoplanet Watch for space photography to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird for birders. Whatever you’re interested in, there is an opportunity to simultaneously learn more about and support the efforts of professional scientists who need more data to answer the pressing questions in their fields. 

A community effort to search a brook for locally rare fish

Interested in getting involved in community science? There are plenty of opportunities on the web, but Zoo New England participates in several projects closer to home and would love your help! ZNE staff are active coordinators of the Franklin Park Biodiversity Project, which uses the iNaturalist smartphone app. INaturalist not only lets you submit observations of plants, invertebrates, and larger animals you see, it also helps you identify them using cutting-edge AI and image recognition. Best of all, it’s totally free to use! Why not head down to Franklin Park and join the project, or use iNaturalist to snap a few photos of species at a park near you? The observations you make will be vetted by the iNaturalist user community, and then added to a database used by scientists all over the world. If you like to do your science socially, you can also look for a biobiltz happening near you. Bioblitzes are large gatherings where everyone works together to identify and catalogue as many living things as possible in a given place in a short time. 

However you choose to get involved, community science is fun, educational, and a great way to contribute to our shared understanding of the world around us. Get outside and explore!