How to turn a sighting into science

I think data is boring. Give me a table filled with numbers and Latin names and you might as well have given me a pillow.

Torn from the website, Nature’s Notebook.

Yet, when I want to know the facts, that file is crucial. It is the back story to the environmental novel. It is the tool the dedicated scientists need to find patterns, pinpoint benchmarks, and prove theories. In the right hands, each piece of datum will add up to a picture, one that looks to the past to envision the future.

Thus, collecting statistics is part of every conservation effort. How do you know what has been lost or gained if you never measure the inventory? When do you sound an alarm for a species if you can’t say how few individuals remain? Yet, field researchers cannot be in all places at all times, making it seemingly impossible to accomplish such counting goals. Satellite imagery may be fantastic today, but they must still rely on actual face-to-subject sightings. This is where you and I can help. Any casual observer who spends recreational time outside can make a real difference by sharing an observation and becoming a “citizen scientist.”

A Simple Start

For instance, say you notice an unusual beetle. Its wings glow with a metallic green color so brilliant you can’t forget the sighting. Acting on curiosity, you look it up online to see if you can identify the creature. Your bug matches the photo on the emerald ash borer fact sheet, the one that describes it as a seriously problematic pest. Bummer.

What you do next is where the difference comes in. Sure, it’s great that you were captivated enough to look it up. There’s something about identifying the creatures we see in the environment that better connects us to it. But in order to turn the sighting into ever-important data, you must take the next step. You need to report it.

Too Much Information?

Of course, you don’t want to report every red robin or black ant you find. That would consume your time and flood the scientists with too much information. Like the emerald ash borer, you want to report what they are requesting. For instance, in a community near me, conservationists are looking for migration data related to a defined list of species. The timing of sightings will tell researchers how early the subjects are moving in spring and fall, which will be useful to prove the theory that climate change is impacting their habits.

Whatever the initiative, most often all that’s needed from us is a few more minutes spent online, usually at the same site that was used for identification in the first place, especially if it was biology, ecology, or education focused. When I wanted to know what kind of frog was living in my basement, I used PaHerps.com. While further investigating the habits of a Pickerel frog, I noticed that scientists there were asking Pennsylvania residents to report their sightings to the Pennsylvania Amphibian & Reptile Survey. So I did. And there was the juncture of my amateur observation and a greater effort, one that aims to protect the creature I found.

Why it Matters

According to the amphibian survey site, the program goal is to, “determine the distribution and status of all amphibians and reptiles throughout Pennsylvania.” Even if my interest in amphibians is small, it feels good to have shared my froggy encounter with those whose is great.

You and I might make decisions based on emotion and inner instinct, but authorities do not. They want facts. They want to know a table exists as the basis for a scientific summary of findings, the ones that they read before going into legislative session. It wasn’t enough that the bald eagle was our majestic national symbol; their protection became federal law only after people tallied their dwindling numbers. And they kept counting. Today, the eagle numbers have soared, adding a chapter about success to the conservation story.

Opposite the eagle or a Pickerel frog, the presence of an emerald ash borer is not a good thing. In fact, it is cause for alarm. Serious efforts are underway to understand the beetle so that we can combat the damage it aims to do to every ash tree in its path. And serious efforts are underway to understand the impact of climate change. These are two giant issues that start with tiny observations, ones in which every pair of human eyes on the ground matter.

Always take the next step and add your sighting to the list when asked. Include a photo if you’re not confident about your identification skills. Most citizen science sites are designed to be easy to understand and you’re rarely subjected to boring tables or charts. And if you’re serious about broadening the reach of your regular observations, consider signing up for an ongoing citizen scientist project such as Nature’s Notebook. Because, like Smokey Bear says about forest fires, only you can save nature’s treasures. Now that’s exciting stuff.

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