A community of retirees, bus drivers, and hobbyists jumps at random in the pursuit of scientific discovery. It doesn’t require a PhD and often requires no experience – just passion and maybe a smartphone.
Bob Belmont is a Gainesville resident involved in community science. He is retired and volunteers at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, a research and education center for butterflies and moths. There, Belmont devotes his time to the meticulous craft of collecting and caring for butterflies.
Although Belmont is a professional entomologist with degrees from UC Davis and UF and doesn’t consider himself a citizen scientist, he says some of his work can be considered community science if people just want to help.
“Citizen scientists can really help ecologists, who need to collect huge data sets in their research to understand how plant and animal populations change over time,” Belmont said.
Community science is characterized by the collaboration of interested scientists seeking to improve land management and sustainability. With the help of UF’s coordinated programs and volunteers, the idea lives on in Gainesville.
Public scientists do not participate in the scientific community for financial reasons. Instead, they do it out of simple, knowledge-seeking pursuits.
In many cases, networks that support public science are hosted on websites such as iNaturalist, where users can upload photos of wildlife and document species, locations, and dates. Other studies may use datasets provided by citizen scientists to monitor physical factors such as soil nutrient density.
For Belmont, he is working to collect butterflies and moths from the 275-acre Split Rock Conservation Area owned by the city of Gainesville. Belmont began collecting in February, going out every other night and setting traps to collect samples.
The Split Rock Conservation area is open to the public, Belmont said, so those who want to participate can visit and take photos if they want. People can then upload their photos to websites like iNaturalist and tag the butterfly with the name of where they found it.
Belmont now has about 500 conservation butterfly species, one of which may be undiscovered, he said. The center is always looking for volunteers to hand out specimens, which Belmont said is needed to properly identify and categorize the various species.
“Most scientists welcome citizen scientists with open arms and are willing to discuss their research projects,” Belmont said.
However, some people prefer to contribute from the back of a lab chair rather than out in the field.
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Manchester resident Roy Goff, 63, spent much of his holiday at The McGuire Center this year photographing African moths for his website africanmoths.com. Housed in the Florida Museum of Natural History, the center has about 12 million specimens from Peru to Kazakhstan, some of which have been donated by other citizen scientists.
Back in Manchester, Goff works as a bus driver. He has no formal training in entomology and is self-taught.
UF awarded him a visiting scientist grant for his stay and flight from the UK, which gave him access to a research facility based on the world’s largest collection of moths and butterflies.
Goff’s website lists 4,500 species of butterflies, of which 1,000 are unnamed. Goff hopes africanmoths.com will provide a digital resource for people in African countries.
“Since I started the website, interest in butterflies in Africa has grown tremendously,” Goff said.
There’s more to community science than photographing butterflies and moths — it can even change local policy. A recent UF study found that residential composting practices have positive effects on water quality. That’s thanks to the volunteers of Florida Lakewatch, a water quality monitoring program.
Volunteers provided data from 160 lakes across the state dating back to 1987 for the study.
Lakewatch members are trained to check local water quality. These samples are sent to the laboratory for analysis. About 1,200 Floridians volunteer with Florida Lakewatch, director Mark Hoyer said. More than 40 world publications have used the organization’s information.
The winter fertilizer ban reduced levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, two chemical elements that contribute to harmful algal blooms in natural waterways, in Florida waterways, said Samuel Smith, the study’s lead researcher.
Phosphorus declines and nitrogen levels do not improve in states that have implemented summer ordinances. Increased nutrient leaching reduces the recreational value of natural areas such as springs. More importantly, algal blooms block sunlight and limit plant photosynthesis.
If plants don’t photosynthesize, they don’t produce oxygen, which harms aquatic animal populations that need it to survive.
Summer bans are more common, Smidt said, because the idea is that the rainy season washes away fertilizer, and summer bans prevent that. But plants are most active in summer and take in more nutrients.
Plants aren’t as active in winter, he added, and winter embankments prevent unused nutrients from flowing into streams.
The study recommends states that don’t ban winter composting evaluate whether composting replacements can meet conservation goals, but the data doesn’t show conclusively that there will be an improvement, Smidt said. Research shows that limiting the use of anthropogenic fertilizers is not the only preventive measure needed to reduce pollution in waterways.
“This was a statewide effort by Florida residents and researchers, spanning decades and generations,” Smidt said. “It’s a collaborative science effort that’s aligned with policy that has environmental consequences.”
Belmont directs public science enthusiasts to civilscience.org. This website features a journal that provides citizen science researchers and practitioners with information on how to plan, implement, and evaluate community engagement projects.
With increasing access to the Internet and smartphones, science is becoming increasingly accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.
If bugs make your skin crawl or testing water quality isn’t your thing, there are other ways to get involved in community science. The digital collections include Globe at Night, Project Budburst, Project Noah, Zoonisverse, and The Great Backyard Bird Count, projects that promote public science awareness, support conservation, or both.
Contact Fernando at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @fernfigue.
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Fern is a junior majoring in journalism and sustainability. He previously reported for the University and Metro Desk. Now he covers the environmental impact on the Enterprise desk. When he’s not reporting, you can find him dancing at the Barcade or taking pictures on his Olympus.