Watching wildlife can be entertaining, relaxing, exciting, confusing, stressful, or all of the above. Many people are fascinated by the stories going on in their gardens, urban greenspaces, conservation areas, and parks. The backyard squirrels leaping from one precarious branch to another, as they race through the treetops at top speed, is heart stopping. The struggle of fledgling birds, as they tentatively wobble out of the nest, can have you on the edge of your seat. Maybe you are following the triumphs and tragedies of Ozzie and Harriet (ospreys) playing out on the Audubon’s osprey-cam streaming live from Maine over the web 24/7. Around the world, people are rivetted by these unscripted ‘reality’ shows, a variety of new nature ‘apps’, and citizen science websites that are now accessible from anywhere.
This curiosity about the world around us helps us to better understand the plants and animals we share our local ecosystems with. E. O. Wilson believes this type of learning makes us value all life more. Contemplating our place in a complex ecosystem like the Kawarthas, for example, can make us feel alive and part of something bigger than ourselves. This can be a good thing when we’re feeling stressed or having a bad day. Learning about natural history may even enhance our personal happiness (there is research linking environmental education and well-being).
It’s impossible not to root for our local turtles and their painstakingly slow and deliberate efforts to cross our region’s roads and highways. It seems equally impossible not to celebrate their successes when they make it across unharmed (my husband unabashedly does what he calls his ‘turtle dance’ – a spontaneous and rather amusing expression of joy at seeing the turtles succeed).
Personal observations are becoming increasingly useful – even essential – for tracking events like the spread of invasive species, seasonal changes in migration patterns, loss of wildlife habitat, and the survival of at-risk species. The volume of information needed to monitor the health of our natural world is beyond the ability of researchers, but average citizens are making substantial contributions and collaborating in this endeavour. Commonly referred to as citizen science, the information gathered by bird counters, water sample collectors, turtle and frog watchers, just to name a few, helps experts to learn about these happenings in places they can’t easily get to. Citizens like you and I can collect information and send it to far-off researchers compiling information from across the globe.
This is a win-win situation for us, for the researchers, and for nature. Average citizens contribute to scientific knowledge as well as learn more about their local environment. Have you ever wondered why the turtles cross the road? Or exactly what kind of turtle you just avoided? Where do turtles go in the winter? What are the most dangerous roads for our local turtles? Our very own Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (KTTC) has excellent advice, information (Turtles 101), and guidance on how to best help these fascinating critters, many of which are at risk (http://kawarthaturtle.org/blog/get-involved/roads/). Personal encounters with nature frequently trigger our fascination, inspiring us to learn more. Until I transported an injured turtle to the KWTC, I didn’t know about Blanding’s and their threatened status.
The curiosity, interest, and other emotions we feel about nature can motivate us to preserve our cherished places. I challenge you to watch a group of tiny rescued turtles learning to swim and not feel protective and hopeful. My turtle experiences in the first few years of living in Peterborough gave me a new appreciation for the challenges faced by local wildlife and also a sense of pride in local education initiatives.
Citizen science projects are as diverse as species on our planet (or maybe even off it!). Zooniverse is a collection of such projects, the earliest and most notable being Galaxy Zoo where millions of volunteers help to categorize images and thus contribute to actual science.
A bit closer to home, literally, my colleague, Dr. Scott Smedley at Trinity College in Connecticut, is investigating animals’ scavenging behaviour. Many people compost kitchen scraps in a pile on their property and Dr. Smedley is interested in how this practice influences scavenging wildlife. Not unlike Galaxy Zoo, the Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Investigation) tool allows volunteers to categorize the thousands of camera trap images from animals visiting the experimental compost piles. This allows researchers to answer questions about human-influenced environments. Who scavenges with who? At what time of day, night, and year? Does the content of compost influence animal behaviour?
Some citizen projects are hands-on, providing science skills to volunteers. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (and other similar organizations) train average citizens in non-invasive tracking and data collection techniques. Over a weekend, citizens might gather hair collected from fenceposts, take measurements of grizzly bear footprints, and learn about how researchers will use this valueable ecological data on wildlife corridors. ASC teaches middle school children from California how to look for signs of pika (the smallest member of the rabbit family) and how this species is struggling to survive. The potato-sized furry creatures are alpine specialists, unable to adapt to temperature changes, and thus considered a climate indicator species. The effects of climate change may be subtle or imperceptible to humans so a citizen science approach gives these students real and tangible examples of adaptation (or imminent extinction).
Citizen science is flourishing, and this detective work we do – counting birds, butterflies, or turtles – is good for our own well-being, as well as the critters we are learning about. At the end of their expeditions, ASC citizen scientists report more vitality, positive emotions, and a greater sense of connection with nature. Taking time to get outdoors and explore is important for our physical health, but also to foster a sense of connection with our surroundings. We benefit from cultivating a sense of wonder and awe, from discovering new features of our environment, and from learning new skills. Not only is citizen science an efficient way to share information among researchers and community members, but honing our citizen science skills may be the most important contribution we make to improving human and environmental health. So, unlike the frightened turtles we see crossing the road, let’s try to get out of our shells more, to look around, and discover everything we possibly can about our wonderful world.