July 17, 2019 | Society, Science
Whether your summer plans include climbing a mountain, heading out to the lake or strolling through your neighbourhood, Dr. Jessica Haines is hoping you’ll take the time to snap a few photos of the wildlife that you see along the way.
And she’s not just looking for snapshots of hard-to-spot species – she also wants crows, gophers, ladybugs, pigeons, squirrels, warblers, yarrow and everything in between.
Jessica is working with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI), designing a research project that will use data collected through its free NatureLynx mobile app. Users (a.k.a. “citizen scientists”) have uploaded more than 6,000 photos over the past year, and each image, she says, contributes to the bigger story of what’s happening with biodiversity in our province. That’s why Jessica is encouraging Albertans to add even more photos before she starts digging into the data next summer.
“Every day we hear about species in decline or how humans are impacting the environment,” says Jessica, an assistant professor in biological sciences. “Citizen science – getting a lot of different people, not just professional scientists, participating in data collection – is a positive way we can all try to contribute to understanding which species are in decline and which are actually doing well.”
While Jessica certainly wants to see data about rare species, she says that photos of common species are probably most useful to one aspect of her research.
“Photos of species that are relatively easy to identify give us information about distribution – where they occur – and that is incredibly important because distribution can be tied to climate change, which can affect where certain species live,” she explains.
Citizen scientists can gather data by downloading the NatureLynx app and using it to upload their wildlife photos.
So Jessica is asking aspiring citizen scientists to upload photos of anything and everything they come across in the natural world over the next year. Don’t worry if you can’t identify the insect, bird, mammal or plant you just snapped a photo of, she says. You can either take a guess and have ABMI’s team of experts check it, or leave the work to them. Either way, because the information in all the photos is verified, Jessica will have quality data to work with next summer when her research begins in earnest.
While Jessica is still determining which questions about Alberta biodiversity and the effectiveness of citizen science her research will ask, she knows her students will have a part to play in answering them. She plans to enlist a group of student researchers to help with data collection and engaging the public in citizen science.
“This type of research not only gives students experience with data collection,” she says, “it also combines science – trying to understand what the data tells us about biodiversity – with communication, and that’s useful regardless of what career they eventually choose.”