Among the parents and children swarming Norman Bird Sanctuary one Saturday morning last month was a 10-year-old girl who claimed to have considerable skill using an insect net. She was right, and she happily put her skills to work in the name of science.
She was one of 13 volunteers who joined sanctuary staff to identify and count butterflies, part of a nationwide effort to document changes in butterfly distribution and abundance and to monitor the affect of climate and habitat changes. It’s the second year the sanctuary participated in the event, and program organizer Mark Pagliarini called it a great success.
“We hit habitats where we knew there would be butterfly diversity, and in an hour-and-a-half we counted 21 species,” he said, including monarchs, three species of swallowtails, and an uncommon juniper hairstreak, which Pagliarini called “a super super cool, metallic-looking emerald butterfly.”
The data the group collected will be submitted to the North American Butterfly Association, which will combine it with the results of about 450 other counts from across the country for use in future research.
The butterfly count is one of a growing number of citizen science projects sprouting up around the nation that are designed to engage the public in collecting data that can be used in scientific studies. It allows researchers to collect more data from a wider range of locations much more inexpensively than if they were to try to do it alone.
If butterflies aren’t your thing, however, there are plenty of other citizen science projects to join. Some take place on certain dates for a set amount of time, while others can be conducted at your leisure whenever you happen to be out and about. And still other projects are computer-based, allowing you to participate without leaving home. The following is a sampling of projects, but many more can be found online.
Rhode Island Jellyfish Monitoring Program
Organizers: Brown University
What they need: Reports of observations of any of the eight species of jellyfish that commonly occur in state waters.
How to help: Surfers, beachgoers, fishermen, boaters and others can download an app to their smartphone or tablet and report the species, location and estimated quantity of any jellyfish they see.
Why this research is important: The researchers are trying to document the year-round occurrences of jellyfish to better understand where each species is likely to be found – and where they aren’t. According to the project’s website, jellyfish are sentinels of ecological change in coastal waters, and changes in their abundance or distribution could be the result of over-fishing, warming waters, changes in water quality or other factors.
More info: quidditch.gis.brown.edu/Jellyfish_RI
International Coastal Cleanup
Organizers: Save the Bay
What they need: Hundreds of volunteers on Sept. 17 to help pick up and record beach litter and marine debris.
How to help: Join teams of volunteers at one of 80 coastal locations around the state.
Why this research is important: Beach trash is unsightly and can be harmful to a wide variety of marine organisms. The tally of the quantity and variety of litter collected will be included in a global report by scientists at the Ocean Conservancy. The data will help identify the primary sources of litter, which will aid in focusing prevention efforts.
More info: www.savebay.org/icc
Organizers: National Phenology Network
What they need: Reports of the timing of flowers blooming, bird migration, insect emergence, and other seasonal natural history events.
How to help: Observe nature in your backyard or nearby each week, and record online what you see.
Why this research is important: The data will help scientists track the impact of weather and climate change on wildlife across the country. It will be used by researchers, land managers and policy makers to ensure the protection of natural resources.
More info: www.usanpn.org
Rhode Island Bird Atlas
Organizers: University of Rhode Island, R.I. Department of Environmental Management
What they need: Birdwatchers who can identify the birds that winter in Rhode Island and document breeding activities in spring and summer.
How to help: Sign up to identify birds in one of 165 ten-square-mile blocks in the state, then join others to scour your block for as many species as possible.
Why this research is important: Data from this five-year project will be compared with the results of a similar atlas in the 1980s to document changes in bird distribution and abundance.
More info: www.ribirdatlas.com
Organizers: University of Rhode Island
What they need: Volunteers to make weekly visits from May to October to one of about 200 ponds, lakes, streams and bays to monitor water quality.
How to help: At a designated water body, test for water clarity, temperature, algae and dissolved oxygen every week, and collect water samples on several designated dates. Training provided.
Why this research is important: The program helps local communities identify the sources of pollution and the factors contributing to water degradation. Data is used by DEM and other agencies to identify the effect that weather and land use patterns have on water quality.
This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on August 16, 2016.