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Citizens as amateur scientists

February 16, 2007 By Mason Inman This article courtesy of Nature News.

New England naturalists to help assess impacts of climate change.

Studying the effects of climate change on plant and animal populations can involve a slow and arduous process of gathering lots of data from the field. So Boston University biology professor Richard Primack is enlisting the help of ordinary people with a keen interest in nature and a sharp eye.

At a talk at the MIT Museum next week, he and graduate student Abraham Miller-Rushing will announce their new project, called Nature's Calendar New England. They will ask people throughout New England to submit historical data, such as dated photographs or old diary entries, that describe, for example, when a bird species arrived back in their neighborhood in the spring or when flowers began to bloom. The researchers, in collaboration with the Urban Ecology Institute at Boston College, will also train students and other interested people to record new observations for them about specific species.

Getting a better handle on shifting plant life cycles and animal migration patterns will help researchers identify which species are least able to migrate or adapt to climate change-the ones most susceptible to extinction. With shrinking and more segmented habitats due to encroaching human populations, many species today are limited in their ability to move to areas with a more suitable climate.

"We don't want to simply watch those species decline to extinction. Many of our species might do better, for example, higher up on mountains, or further north," Primack said. "We might want to contribute to that migration of species."

Pitching in

The more sorts of data that you can use, the more you're going to know about how climate change is affecting different animals and plants.
Richard Primack
Boston University
Most studies of the effects of climate change have relied on records made by scientists, often at scientific field stations. But Primack and colleagues say throwing a wider net to include such data as jottings from amateur naturalists and snapshots at an herbarium is valuable.

"One of the great limiting factors of people trying to understand the effects of climate change, particularly on ecological systems, is that there just aren't a lot of these long-term data sets available," says Primack. "So the more sorts of data that you can use, the more you're going to know about how climate change is affecting different animals and plants."

Primack has already found data from "citizen scientists" helpful. One of his studies used photographs taken at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain and around Concord, MA, by a landscape photographer. The photos showed that plants are flowering eight days earlier now than they were in the early 1900s.

Unsuspecting scientist

Another of Primack's studies combed through notebooks kept for decades by a self-taught naturalist, Kathleen Anderson, of the happenings around her farmhouse in Middleborough, south of Boston. Anderson's records showed that birds and frogs were active three to six days earlier in 2002 than in 1970.

"I never, ever thought my notebooks would be of any use to anybody," Anderson said, since she collected the information somewhat haphazardly and for her own use.

Primack has shown that such records, even when collected scattershot and without a scientific aim in mind, can show gradual changes in plant and animal activity in step with shifting temperatures. The most important thing is that the diary entries, photos, and plant samples collected have accurate dates on them, Primack says.

These methods are now starting to spread. "I consider Richard Primack as a particularly innovative scientist," says Claude Lavoie of Laval University in Quebec City, Canada.

"He demonstrates that you do not always have to do painful work to collect data in nature to prove your theses," Lavoie says.

There are two other similar "citizen science" programs: one in Canada called PlantWatch and one in the United Kingdom called UK Phenology Network.

This story is from the newly relaunched Nature Network Boston, a portal for all matters scientific in the Boston area. To find out more, visit


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