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Lorena Villa-Parkman/MEDILL

Citizen scientists are on the rise and are indispensable for the science community.


Citizen scientists vital for wildlife data collection

by Lorena Villa-Parkman
Feb 28, 2012


Steve Sullivan wants you to count squirrels. Whether you're walking your dog, looking out your office window or shoveling snow on your sidewalk, you can help him monitor the squirrel population and your neighborhood's environment.

Sullivan, the curator of urban ecology at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, is recruiting volunteers for Project Squirrel, one of many wildlife surveys happening in the Chicago region.

The beginning of spring marks the busiest season for volunteers who help scientists monitor species such as butterflies, frogs, bees and migratory birds. These citizen scientists, everyday people who are interested in the environment, have proved to be indispensable in determining the health of a species and its habitat.

“Volunteers fill an important gap,” said Matt Hokanson, who runs a frog and plant survey in Spring Creek. “Land management agencies don’t have enough time or budget to do this work. We go out to specific sites week after week and get baseline distribution of species population.”

Animal surveys and counts can say a lot about what is happening environmentally at a specific site. For example, an over-population of squirrels might indicate a lack of predators or too much garbage.

Surveys are also helpful in identifying long-term weather trends and their impact on certain animals.

“Having citizens doing this has its advantages,” said Karen Glennemeier, science director at the Audubon Society of Chicago. “They help strengthen the constituency of conservation. We bring them in as serious contributors and they turn out to be more invested and more willing to speak out.”

Pete Jackson, a 59-year-old biologist from Arlington Heights who particpates in citizen frog and plant surveys, said the the counts are a way for people to contribute to larger efforts to protect the environment.

“The Chicago region has demonstrated that volunteers that are effectively trained collect valuable data,” he said. Most citizen scientists attend workshops to learn how to distinguish certain species.

Hokanson said some wildlife biologists do go out and count, but mostly they rely on their network of volunteers for widespread surveys. The more observations recorded in a given spot, the more likely the aggregate of observations is correct.

The counts don't just teach scientists about animals.

“With these surveys we don’t learn just about squirrels, but also about impactful species, like humans," said Sullivan.

He said that being a citizen scientist has also personal benefits.

“To be able to tell the difference between species of squirrels affects you as a person,” said Sullivan. “My hypothesis is as you learn to differentiate between simple things, like between two species of squirrels, you start learning how to read the environment like a book."