by Geraldine Lindley
March 23, 2016
The citizen science model (also known as participatory science) provides ordinary people with volunteer opportunities to support scientific research. Thus, more research can be carried out contributing to an increase in scientific knowledge.
Sources of funding for citizen science projects vary, and may include government, NGOs, business, and private donors. For example, the Canadian federal government, in addition to providing grants, may provide direct support through partnerships in which their staff participate in data collection and other research and conservation activities. Such is the case for the Piping Plover conservation program, the first of my two memorable hands-on experiences which I will describe briefly.
In contrast, if the federal government is not directly involved, as with the Leatherback Turtle conservation program of Earthwatch, benefits to citizen science may still flow indirectly if a nonprofit organization is able to receive charitable status under Canadian tax law, thus potentially enhancing donorship due to its ability to give tax deductible receipts.
Our mission – to spot a small pale sand-coloured bird on a kilometres-long beach of sand; and from a distance (so as not to disturb it at all), determine if and where it poops, then find that exact spot to retrieve a sample. I should also mention that fog frequently blanketed or moved in large patches on the beach. Luckily for me and my fellow volunteer, we had time and curiosity on our side, the guidance and encouragement of a stellar mentor (Sue Abbott, who heads up the Nova Scotia Piping Plover conservation program for Bird Studies Canada), and reasonably good eyesight!
As enthusiastic volunteers, my friend and I spent a week one summer carrying out various tasks on three Nova Scotia beaches with the aim of helping research and conservation efforts for the endangered Piping Plover that breeds on sand beaches before heading south for the winter. We learned that populations had declined significantly over the years due to human-caused loss of habitat and beach disturbances. We also learned that dedicated scientists and volunteers were working very hard to understand and conserve this species. Notably, collaboration among plover experts extends to other parts of North America – one example being the one-time specific request from a U.S. researcher who wanted to attempt to extract DNA from any droppings we were able to collect.
We got up early, ate a hearty breakfast, and checked the weather forecast. We stuffed our backpacks with water, snacks, suntan lotion (ever optimistic), rain jacket and pants, notepad and pencils, binoculars, camera, wipes for cleaning salt spray off binoculars and camera, sunhat, cell phone, gloves, sunglasses, and garbage bags.
The few nests were encircled by wire mesh “exclosures” to protect the eggs from foxes and other predators while permitting the adult Piping Plover to enter and exit. The young birds were also extremely vulnerable during their time after they left the nest and before they could fly. We patrolled the beach several times a day, recording location and numbers of nests, young and adult birds; and weather, time of day, and any disturbances of note. We assisted in putting up signs to notify beach-goers of sensitive areas; and we politely explained to them the importance of the conservation program and how they can avoid disturbing the birds. And yes – we did successfully retrieve a few samples of bird droppings.
As a “fledgling Citizen Scientist”, I loved every minute! I came away with an understanding of the hardships threatening the survival of the Piping Plover as it struggles to breed in a relatively short season. More importantly, I wanted to “spread the word”. I developed a deep respect and gratitude for all the scientists (researchers and volunteers), and the stewardship shown by local communities. I embraced the strong feeling of connecting to nature, and I also felt connected to a larger conservation community. As a bonus, I do believe that I now have a remarkable ability to easily distinguish various shades of a sand-coloured hue.
If I close my eyes I can clearly see a six inch sand-coloured bird with a black neck-ring and bill tip, hear its peeping whistle, smell the salty tidal mudflats, and feel the serenity of the early morning beach patrol.
As a final note, I am eager to receive my copy of an incredible volunteer-based initiative – the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of the Maritime Provinces.(www.mba-aom.ca) Of the information on 222 nesting species, I will immediately turn to that on the status of the Piping Plover.
I have a sense of the history associating citizen science with bird conservation. And today, the continued importance of this association is evident when I look through the website for Bird Studies Canada (www.birdscanada.org) under the “Citizen Science” tab and see over thirty initiatives!
My other citizen science experience took place on Sandy Point, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another endangered species on another beach. Our small group of volunteers were trained by Earthwatch Institute scientists to collect data and rescue turtle hatchlings over a ten day period during the time of year when females come ashore to dig nests on the beach and lay ninety or so ping pong ball sized rubbery eggs.
We patrolled the beach at night, often splitting up into teams of two, and keeping in radio contact with the scientists. In order to prepare for the work (walking in soft sand, for hours) I “trained” in Toronto by climbing up and and down steep hills to get my leg muscles in shape. But what I regrettably didn’t do beforehand, was get my shoulders and upper arms in shape; that would have been a big help for those times when I found myself lying flat on my stomach and repeatedly scooping out handfuls of wet sand, stretching the full length of my arm until I got to the bottom of the nests. This careful excavation process was essential to rescue any live hatchlings that had become trapped and could not make it to the surface on their own.
We also made certain that hatchlings safely reached the water and did not get preyed upon, nor head in the wrong direction because they were orienting to the brightest light (which on occasion happened to be those illuminating sports fields kilometres away). If a hatchling got caught in vegetation high up on the beach it would exhaust itself or die of dehydration. We also collected data on nesting females, measuring them and checking for research tags, noting place and time of laying. Occasionally nests needed to be relocated due to likely erosion of the nests by waves; and so I once found myself catching eggs as they were being laid, lying with my lower legs in the ocean and my upper body right behind the turtle’s powerful back flippers, trying not to think about what a literal pain in the neck those flippers could possibly cause me (it was totally safe, but what did I know?) should I disturb the seemingly trance-like state of the female as she exerted herself while “crying salty tears”.
Another big threat to the survival of the Leatherback Turtle was poaching of the eggs. Nightly patrols proved effective in decreasing the incidence of poaching. On the one occasion a motorboat disturbed my patrol by shining its strong searchlights at us, we tried to send a message back by shining our little flashlights at the boat! I just couldn’t accept that such wonderful and massive creatures that have travelled the oceans for over 100 million years could be at risk of extinction because of humans. In addition to threats from poaching, and coastal development along nesting beaches, turtles die from encounters with fishing gear, and from ingesting garbage (particularly plastic bags that are mistaken for jellyfish, their food source).
Apart from a moment of embarrassment when I almost tripped onto a huge female that I mistook for a rock in the dark, I was thrilled to work alongside dedicated researchers and committed conservationists, and to contribute in my small way to years of conservation efforts there – efforts that have achieved designation of Sandy Point as a National Wildlife Refuge, an end to poaching, and a significant increase in nesting turtles and hatchlings (see earthwatch.org).
The nonprofit environmental organization Earthwatch Institute continues to play a leadership role in supporting scientific research worldwide, facilitating citizen science, and raising public awareness about key environmental concerns.
Geraldine Lindley has a background in law (LL.B., LL.M.) and science (B.Sc.). A professor of business, she teaches Business Law, Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility, and Negotiation. Her abiding interests include environmental protection, social justice and animal welfare.