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"Citizen Scientists" Capture U.S. Wildlife on Camera to Aid Smithsonian Research

citizen scientist

Story at-a-glance -

  • Volunteers in The Smithsonian’s eMammal program use infrared-activated cameras to capture images of wildlife in their area
  • The data will then be used for scientific research and conservation efforts
  • If you’d like to get involved in wildlife tracking and play a role in furthering conservation efforts, there are many citizen scientist programs seeking volunteers like you

By Dr. Becker

Have you ever wondered what’s lurking in the woods behind your house or the park down the street? What types of creatures call these green spaces — often right in the middle of an urban environment — home?

The Smithsonian Institution and North Carolina State University are calling on “citizen scientists” to help document the animals often “hiding in plain sight” around us. Right now they’re focused on the mid-Atlantic region, but ultimately they’d like to cover the entire U.S.

The program, called eMammal, works like this: volunteers place “camera traps” in natural areas. The cameras are infrared-activated, which means they’ll snap a picture whenever a warm-blooded moving creature is near.

These photo collections are then shared with researchers who are able to get an unprecedented view of what types of animals, and in what quantities, are in our midst. The data will then be used for scientific research and conservation efforts.

Washington D.C. Students Give inside Glimpse Into the Area’s Wildlife

Students at the SEED Public Charter School in Washington D.C. are among the “citizen scientists” taking part in the eMammal project. These city kids are part of an after-school club called the “Green Team,” which ventures into nearby woods to explore its inhabitants.

Cameras placed by the students have captured some intriguing subjects — wild turkeys, fox, raccoons, possum, black squirrels and deer have all made an appearance.

In the first two years of the eMammal program (it started in 2012), 2,000 cameras placed in six mid-Atlantic states captured more than 200,000 animal photos.

Bill McShea, a research scientist at the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told The Washington Post, “We need the data from these urban sites, and these students are collecting it for us.”1 The Washington Post continued:2

“The photos represent a more modern way of gathering specimens, in part replacing the historical collection of skulls and animal skins that wildlife biologists took back to museums for tagging and storage.

Now, cameras can capture similar information and, when carefully documented, the photos can become part of the Smithsonian collection.”

Citizen Scientists Help Track the World’s Birds, Frogs and More

The use of citizen scientists to gather wildlife data is nothing new. The practice may have started with the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count, which started back in 1900.3

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has also been using citizen scientists to monitor birds since the 1960s. More recently, The Cornell Lab and The Audubon Society started the eBird program (in 2002). It allows birders to enter information about birds they’ve encountered using an online program.

As of May 2015, tens of thousands of participants have recorded more than 9.5 million bird observations around the world through the eBird program. The information will help researchers better understand bird distribution around the world.4

There’s also a citizen science program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) called FrogWatch USA. Volunteers learn to identify local frog and toad species by their calls during breeding season and then report their findings online.5

FrogWatch USA has been collecting data for more than 15 years, and the information is being used to help develop strategies for frog and toad conservation.

Some have wondered whether volunteers can conduct real research, and the answer is yes. According to a report in the journal BioScience:6

Collaborations between scientists and volunteers have the potential to broaden the scope of research and enhance the ability to collect scientific data. Interested members of the public may contribute valuable information as they learn about wildlife in their local communities.”

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Do You Want to be a Citizen Scientist and Help Wildlife Conservation?

If you’d like to get involved in wildlife tracking and play a role in furthering conservation efforts, there are many programs seeking volunteers like you. The Smithsonian eMammal program is currently looking for citizen scientists in parts of North Carolina, Washington D.C., Virginia and Florida, as well as worldwide.7

However, this is only one such project seeking volunteers. Depending on your location and interests, you may also be interested in one of the following, which were compiled by the National Wildlife Federation:8

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