POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Environmental scientist Chris Bowser pulled a tiny shrimplike creature from the muck in an eel trap as teenagers in chest waders surrounded him in the rushing Fall Kill, where they were collecting transparent baby eels.
“This is called a scud, or amphipod,” Bowser said, launching into a riff on the food chain and pollution.
“Are you going to eat it?” a girl interrupted.
“What? No!” Bowser snapped, then reconsidered and popped it into his mouth. “Tastes like shrimp seasoned with mud.”
Besides being a researcher in the state’s Hudson River Estuary Program, Bowser leads citizen projects that collect reams of data for scientists and resource management agencies while engaging volunteers in hands-on science and teaching them something about the world around them. His Steve Irwin-style exuberance and enthusiasm for his subject matter make Bowser an ideal leader in the rapidly expanding world of citizen science.
Once restricted mainly to counting birds — most famously, in Audubon’s 111-year-old Christmas Bird Count — citizen science has expanded rapidly in recent years, both in number and variety of projects. Some projects count things — fireflies, ladybugs, frogs, herring. Others record data on water quality, weather, flower budding and other phenomena. Still others already have the data but need a lot of people to sort through it.
Darlene Cavalier, whose ScienceForCitizens website brings together volunteers and research projects, said she started the site when she was a graduate student writing a thesis on promoting citizen science. The site’s growth from a blog listing about 40 projects in 2006 to a busy portal with more than 400 projects in its database today mirrors the expansion of citizen science in the U.S., Cavalier said.
“My goal is to get as many people as possible involved in citizen science projects,” said Cavalier. The more people learn about science and build a personal connection to research, the better they’ll be able to participate in policy decisions related to science and the environment, she said.
For researchers, volunteers provide free labor and are able to complete a great deal of work in a short time if there are a lot of them. Galaxy Zoo was launched in 2007 to enlist volunteers to classify photographs of a million galaxies. More than 250,000 people have participated so far, providing information used in numerous peer-reviewed journal articles.
“Professional science communities were a little wary of involving the public in the past because of trust issues and concerns about bad data,” Cavalier said. Better design of projects and new methods of weeding out bad data have overcome much of that concern, she said.
Janis Dickinson, director of citizen science at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is co-author of a book soon to be published about the lab’s highly regarded citizen science projects, which include Project FeederWatch, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and eBird, a global online tool where birders enter sightings into a massive database.
“The book is about how we can harness the Internet to create conservation communities that are actually practicing data collection over huge and relevant geographic scales that really encompass the distributions of the organisms that we’re concerned about,” Dickinson said. “The Internet allowed us suddenly to be able to take in data from a broad public, now globally with eBird, and then process that data and provide tools to the public so they can visualize and manipulate the data.”
As citizen science has become more sophisticated, the scientific community has embraced it, Dickinson said.
“Ten years ago when our researchers tried to publish they’d usually get a peer reviewer who was skeptical of the data,” Dickinson said. “We don’t see that anymore. The research associate working in my group, who did his Ph.D. working from citizen science data, submitted a paper last August that was one of the fastest accepted I’ve ever seen.”
Bowser said researchers are becoming more accepting of volunteer-based data collection, but only if the protocols are straightforward enough and the citizens participating are trained and able to follow those protocols carefully.
“This eel project is a great model for citizen science,” Bowser said after wading ashore and leaving the students to their eel counting and water sampling. “For one thing, the species has a real demonstrated conservation need. We’ve seen a decline in American eels — in some populations 80 to 90 percent — since the 1970s, and we’re not sure why. The data we collect goes to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which wants this information.”
Volunteers like to know they’re doing something with real value, he said. They also like the fact that it requires a time commitment of just two months in the spring.
“Also, the eel has this very compelling story,” Bowser said. “They’re born in the ocean in the Sargasso Sea, then travel thousands of miles as baby glass eels to swim up rivers and populate the watersheds. And they’re charismatic in an underdog, Humphrey Bogart kind of way.”
“It’s good for kids to get outdoors and see what’s out there,” said 20-year-old Jorge Reyes-Bravo, who started working on the eel project when he was in high school and continues to volunteer now that he’s in community college majoring in environmental studies. “We don’t want to see species disappear. We want to figure out why they’re disappearing and help them.”
Eel study: www.dec.ny.gov/lands/49580.html