The Wired Frog: Why Citizen Scientists Matter

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Citizen scientists can reveal the spread of invasive species. Image credit: Thadz

Shh! There’s one right over there.

You point, and you shoot. Got it! Another frog photo in the camera, recorded for posterity and for science.

Social media has been a force connecting frogs worldwide. You can see them now, clicking away on their tiny green computers with their sticky fingers. Wait: not quite. People worldwide have been inspired by social media to search for frogs and record them for science.

This year’s Global Amphibian Bioblitz has been a social media sensation, attracting people from around the world to log onto their computers and create a digital log of the amphibians in their neighborhoods. At last count, global contributors had logged 712 of over 6000 of the earth’s amphibian species.

 Citizen Science Has a Long History

This citizen science isn’t new. For a long time, there have been animal counts. The Audubon Society has been doing a winter bird count for over 100 years. This is long before the advent of social media. This is long before the advent of completely consistent postal service in some areas. While it’s fun to hunt down and count animals, this type of citizen science serves a greater purpose.

Local Naturalists Reveal Changes in Plant and Animal Populations

An animal’s range and population numbers tell us a lot about the health of an ecosystem. It tells us where new species have moved and tells us when a species’ numbers are waning. This gives scientists valuable clues about the impacts of habitat change on animal life worldwide. Amphibians have been called the barometer for the world’s ecosystems. They lead a dual life in water and then on land, so they need high quality land and water environments to breed and survive. With their sensitive skin that draws in the water around them, the changes in an environment impact them to a larger degree than other animals.

Small Armies of Devoted Naturalists Seek Frogs

Armed with technology, citizen scientists find frog and reptile species. Image credit: Canberkol

Why can’t regular scientists do this work? Well, there a lot more regular people, weekend naturalists, and hikers out there than there are herpetologists.

These folks can tell scientists something. Sporadic scientific expeditions and studies can’t accurately track animal and plant populations over time. Locals can.

These people can search for animals, and these days they have the equipment to make a lasting record of what they find. Most importantly, these people live everywhere: on the tops of mountains and near the ocean, in the tropics and in the Arctic. The reach of hundreds of thousands of weekend naturalists is vast and powerful.

Of course, citizen science is not perfect. It relies on enthusiastic but possibly untrained individuals who may not survey an area and determine species ID in the way that formal scientists would.  However, with the advent of digital cameras and social media, the ability of citizen scientists to upload results and have them verified by others has expanded exponentially. You might not know what that frog is, but someone does, and that person is quite possibly looking at your photos.

What’s up next on the naturalists’ schedules? Snakes and lizards and reptiles of all stripes. The success of the amphibian bioblitz has inspired even more searching, this time for the reptiles that roam our planet.  Ready? Get our your cameras and start the hunt here.

References:

Audubon Society. Christmas Bird Count. Accessed September 10, 2011.

INaturalist. Global Amphibian Bioblitz. Accessed September 10th, 2011.

Sanders, R. Success of amphibian social networking spawns Reptile BioBlitz. September 7, 2011. UC Berkeley News Center. Accessed September 10th, 2011.

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