Coop’s Scoop: Amphibian and Reptile Citizen Science on the next #CitSciChat

Cuban Rock Iguana (photo by Staselnik)
Cuban Rock Iguana (photo by Staselnik)

There are millions of people taking part in citizen science across the world, and thousands of practitioners – scientists, educators, computer scientists, and activists – organizing citizen science projects. Citizen science has emerged as a new discipline, with novel ways of enabling scientific research, informing policy and conservation, and motivating learning.

New organizations, such as the Citizen Science Association, the European Citizen Science Association, and Citizen Science Network Australia, are helping practitioners connect with each other to solidify best practices and training. Other organizations provide cyberinfrastructure to help administer citizen science projects, like Zooniverse for online projects and and Wildbook for field projects. Other organizations, like Public Lab and Global Community Monitor, support grassroots citizen science. Still other organizations, like SciStarter, connect participants with projects.

To add one more way of connecting on citizen science, in January of this year, I started organizing and moderating monthly discussion sessions on Twitter about citizen science under the hashtag #CitSciChat. The largest hub of citizen science projects, SciStarter, enthusiastically sponsors #CitSciChat because our missions align to build bridges among practitioners and participants. Check out archived chats in Storify from January, February (gamification), March (spring), April (trees), May, June (oceans), and July (sharks).

Red Eft (photo by Jason Quinn)
Red Eft (photo by Jason Quinn)

In a question-answer format with guest panelists, I moderate discussion by raising most of the questions, but everyone is welcome to ask, answer, and follow-up on questions. There are common threads through each #CitSciChat. We explore the scientific, policy, and conservation impact of citizen science projects as well as learning and social outcomes. We chitchat about educational resources for teachers. We share approaches and philosophies to citizen science. We converse about motivations for participants and what types of data volunteers contribute. We discuss who uses the data for varied purposes and how accessible it is for public uses. We talk about transformative experiences and remarkable innovations associated with citizen science.

The theme of #CitSciChat this week is amphibian and reptile citizen science. Amphibians and reptiles, commonly called herps (as in herpetology, based on the Greek root herpet which means creeping), includes animals that hop and slither too, like frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, snakes, lizards, and turtles, to name a few.

Global trends in herpetofauna are troubling. According to the Global Amphibian Assessment, about one third of the 6,000 species of amphibians are at risk of extinction (for comparison, about 12% of birds and 23% of mammals are threatened species). Gibbons and colleagues reported in 2000 a déjà vu level of risk for reptiles. As with most biodiversity loss, the primary culprits are habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, disease, harvesting (for pets), and climate change. Citizen science helped detect some these trends and holds the potential to create conservation solutions.

Fortunately, there’s already a large community of herpetofauna aficionados around the world primed for citizen science. Unfortunately, people who like to find creeping critters don’t have the exact same traditions of natural history recording as, say, bird watchers. Namely, it is not universal to keep the same sort of checklists which are ideal for citizen science.

Last year, two professors at Utah State Univ, Ryan O’Donnell and Andrew Durso, published a paper about how to improve herpetological databases that rely on citizen science. They basically described a system a like eBird, but for cold-blooded spotted, stripped, and mottled herps.

Nevertheless, there are volunteers already contributing data on amphibians and reptiles and reporting these in over 65 citizen science projects. Over 40 of these citizen science projects focus solely on amphibians and/or reptiles. As O’Donnell and Durso explained, if more of these projects switch to checklists and encourage recording non-detections (i.e., what species are absent from a site), researchers will be able to better estimate population trends and distribution. Reporting non-detections, or absences, in addition to presence data makes for more robust insights.

O’Donnell and Durso also emphasized that many projects could be improved by requiring reporting information on volunteer effort (e.g., how much time spent searching and/or over how much area). Amphibian population size in a given area will naturally fluctuate wildly, and high annual variation makes it difficult to detect long-term trends. Detecting trends in relative abundance can be a little easier if participants report their effort.

Finally, O’Donnell and Durso encourage all projects to more actively encourage submissions. To recruit and retain participants to a project requires a type of engagement grounded in mutual understanding, communication, and with shared benefits. Building communities around herpetology research will help citizen science projects reach their full potential in herp conservation. Let’s talk about how on the next #CitSciChat.

Join us for #CitSciChat this Wednesday 5 August at 2pm ET, 7pm BST, and Thursday 6am NZST. With typically about 200 people tweeting, re-tweeting, asking and answering questions, and welcome you to add your voice to the vibrant discussions! Remember to include the hashtag #CitSciChat when you chime in so that everyone can follow the conversation.

Follow this week’s guest panelists:

The team of Greg Pauly, Richard Smart, & Miguel Ordenana (@NatureinLA) – for RASCals and GeckoWatch (both run through iNaturalist)

Chris Smith (@fieldecology) with HerpMapper, a global herp atlas (@HerpMapper)

Sean Sterret (@SeanSterrett) with the USGS

and hopefully Froglife (@froglifers), a herp conservation organization in the United Kingdom


Greg Pauly of RASCals citizen science
Greg Pauly of RASCals citizen science

Categories: Amphibians, Citizen Science

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About the Author

Caren Cooper

Caren Cooper

Dr. Caren Cooper is an associate professor in Forestry and Environmental Resources at NCSU in the Chancellor's Faculty Excellence program on Leadership in Public Science, and assistant head of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She is co-editor-in-chief of Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, a journal of the Citizen Science Association. She has authored over 50 scientific papers, co-developed software to automate metrics of incubation rhythms, and co-created NestWatch, CamClickr, Celebrate Urban Birds, YardMap, and Sparrow Swap. She is a blogger with SciStarter, and author of Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changingthe Face of Discovery. She likes to propel herself on one wheel, two wheel, and eight wheel devices. Follow her @CoopSciScoop. She hosts periodic Twitter discussions with panelists at #CitSCiChat and runs @IamCitSci, a Twitter account with rotating weekly guest hosts.