Citizen Scientists Contribute to Biodiversity Goals

Biologist E.O. Wilson, the world's leading expert on ants, explains the expanding limits of our knowledge of biodiversity and how we can save species. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Citizen scientists and natural spaces play key roles in preserving biodiversity, according to famed biologist E.O. Wilson and a panel of other experts at a 19 May event jointly hosted by the National Park Service and AAAS in celebration of America’s national parks.

Though Wilson praised the work done by conservation organizations who have stemmed the tide of endangered species loss and by scientists who continue to discover new additions to the 2 million species already identified, species today are going extinct 100 times faster than they did before the coming of humanity, and that rate is increasing, Wilson said.

To combat habitat destruction, the primary threat to biodiversity, “we need a lot more parks and reserves, and we need them to be much bigger,” said Wilson, who currently serves as university research professor emeritus at Harvard University. 

Wilson called for wildlife corridor systems consisting of both private and public lands that connect habitats and allow wildlife populations to thrive. Private landowners could agree to have their land designated as part of the corridor while retaining ownership, Wilson added.

E.O. Wilson | Juan David Romero/AAAS

Wilson, who would like to see 50 percent of all land in such corridors, cited several corridor projects already underway, including the Yukon to Yellowstone Conservation Initiative, which works to create an interconnected stretch of habitat in the United States and Canada, and a Gulf Coast corridor from Louisiana to Florida.

In addition to providing habitats for a diverse range of species, new and existing parks can also be drivers for science and education, Wilson said. While many parks include information on their natural history, Wilson encouraged a broader perspective. Parks can be hubs for basic and applied science where citizen scientists can take part in research, he said.

The panel coincided with the 2016 BioBlitz, a series of events held across the country to encourage members of the public to discover and document biodiversity in nearby parks. A partnership between the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society, this year’s BioBlitz included more than 278 different events, said John Francis, vice president for research, conservation, and exploration at National Geographic.

But the aims of the BioBlitz aren’t limited to designated events on National Park Service land. The organizers encourage a do-it-yourself approach, for example, giving participants information on how to take effective field notes, Francis said. Participants are encouraged to submit their observations to iNaturalist or to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and contribute to biodiversity research efforts.

“They can all participate in feeding into a very big engine [their] observations of nature and helping others to understand the beauty of the world we want to conserve,” Francis said.

The work of the 2.3 million volunteer citizen scientists who contribute to biodiversity research have an economic value of up to $2.5 billion per year, said Jennifer Gustetic, assistant director for open innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President.

The federal government has leapt on this “real opportunity to leverage the energy of citizens,” Gustetic said, noting several recently launched websites. CitizenScience.gov includes a catalog of federally supported citizen science projects, while Challenge.gov is a hub for competitions run by more than 80 federal agencies to gather innovative solutions from the public to solve technical, scientific, and creative problems.

Published, peer-reviewed science has emerged from several projects involving citizen science, Gustetic said, including the monitoring of sudden oak death affecting trees in California. According to evaluations of the research, 1,600 trained volunteers were just as effective as subject-matter experts in gathering data, she added.

Bruce Rodan, assistant director for environmental health in the White House Office of Science, Technology, and Policy, also cited a presidential memorandum to improve honeybee colony survival, increase the numbers of monarch butterflies, and increase land for pollinating species. Among its many strategies to reverse the ongoing loss of pollinating species and their landscapes, the memorandum encourages federal facilities to plant pollinator gardens — native flowering landscaping that provides an oasis for bees and butterflies — at federal facilities.

Individuals can get involved, too, by participating in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, Rodan said.

Although citizen science initiatives encourage individuals from all walks of life to get out into nature, greater engagement is needed to bring diverse populations to national parks, argued Theodore Roosevelt IV, an investment banker and conservationist and the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed into law the creation of five National Parks.

Children in urban areas should “see the lands that they own, that have been bequeathed to them by prior generations,” Roosevelt said.

National parks must also adapt in the face of climate change, he said. Challenges that affect biodiversity, such as beetle blight, have wide-ranging impacts and must change how the National Park Service manages its parks, Roosevelt said.

“Saving nature is going to require purposeful management,” agreed Kent Redford, vice president of conservation strategies at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

His suggested approach would use technology to manage nature through synthetic biology, which brings modern engineering principles to the design and construction of living systems.

Synthetic biology could be used to eliminate diseases, revive extinct species, restore lost genetic diversity, restore degraded ecosystems, and control invasive species, Redford said.

Wilson disagreed with Redford’s approach, instead reiterating support for expanded and improved parklands.

“We have to get started soon, and we can’t mess around anymore,” Wilson said.

[Associated image © klagyivik/Adobe Stock]