Citizen Science with Mary Ellen Hannibal

Mary Ellen Hannibal

As human animals, we’re drawn to the natural world. The impulse to observe, touch, and understand begins at birth. It’s no wonder then that, throughout human history, laypeople—philosophers, gardeners, and vagabonds alike—have contributed to the most meaningful scientific knowledge we have. As Joseph Campbell said, myth is nature speaking, and the goal of human life is to align with nature.

While we now have a professional discipline we call “science,” everyday citizen scientists are needed now more than ever. As an organization founded by citizen scientists more than 50 years ago, CNPS is acutely aware and appreciative of this reality. Without the observations, painstaking work, and passion of thousands of people over decades, contributions like the Manual of California Vegetation and the Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants would not be as rich or even possible. The work continues today through Rare Plant Treasure Hunts, chapter field trips, the Important Plant Area Initiative, and more. That’s why Mary Ellen Hannibal’s new book, Citizen Science: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction has been especially meaningful to many of us. We caught up with Hannibal recently to discuss her latest work and the personal experiences that inspired its content.

What is citizen science? Is it new?

MH: Citizen science generally means regular people contributing to scientific research. Indigenous cultures have long observed nature to create “traditional ecological knowledge.” Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist-he worked on his own and he didn’t have an advanced degree. Science really didn’t get professionalized until the 20th century. We are returning today to a new, but old, platform for widespread involvement in understanding the natural world.

How did you develop a passion for citizen science?

MH: While researching my 2009 book (with photographer Susan Middleton) Evidence of Evolution, I interviewed scores of scientists virtually all of whom aid, “I’ll tell you how life begins, but let me tell you first how it is prematurely terminating.” Upwards of 23,000 species today are threatened with extinction. In just the past 40 years, wild species populations have shrunk in alarming numbers: 39 percent of marine wildlife and 76 percent of freshwater wildlife are gone. A billion birds have disappeared from the continent since 1970.

My life changed when I fully grasped this. I wrote my next book, The Spine of the Continent, to help explain how and why it’s happening. Along the way I asked myself, ‘What could scale to actually save nature?’

“Much citizen science is exploring biogeography at ever more specific scales. The basic question is: what are the conditions of life in a particular place that make it habitable by the species living there?”  -Mary Ellen Hannibal

Researching The Spine, I participated in some citizen science projects. I helped monitor the health of Utah forests, which led to changes in grazing rules. I participated in carnivore tracking in Arizona, which helped establish highway overpasses to help wildlife avoid becoming roadkill. I joined teams of people from multiple ages, races, and walks of life. No one talked politics. Once people observe and document nature, they are more likely to become advocates for their study subject. I saw this happen with my own eyes. Direct participation in nature helps save it. Today citizen science is turbo-charged by smartphone technology and vast computing power – I don’t think we have yet begun to unpack its potential. I was inspired to write Citizen Scientist to help spread the word.

How can citizen science address extinction?

MH: The biggest culprit in worldwide species reduction is habitat loss. When new development is on the docket, we need to be more informed about the habitat being displaced. Data collected, even from urban decks and suburban back yards (with highly vetted programs like eBird and iNaturalist), can help create a better picture of what species are on the landscape. With plants in particular, citizen science can help uncover remnant historical species and help increase their numbers so that native pollinators, birds, and more are also welcomed back onto our landscape. Plants are ground zero for documenting the impacts of climate change on the biotic world, and projects that monitor when buds open and leaves drop are essential to helping plan adaptation strategies in a time of uncertainty and change.

Is citizen science “real” science?

MH: Even among PhD scientists themselves, there can be confusion and a conceptual lag about how citizen science relates to what we think of as “pure” science. Western scientific tradition begins with a hypothesis, a question, which is then tested by practitioners through an experiment. When the same results are achieved again and again by many different researchers we become satisfied that “real” science has occurred.

Citizen science begins at the same beginning. There’s an observation, a question, and a strategy is devised for inquiring more deeply into what is going on. Caren Cooper, whose book Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery is like mine, an introduction to the field for the general reader, and points out that citizen science “extends research pursuits beyond what scientists could do alone. For example, scientists typically work in one study site; with citizen science, observations can be gathered across the world, leading to different types of generalities.” What Cooper is describing is the Big Data aspect of citizen science, which allows us to grapple with the global issues confronting us today. For example, the largest marine die-off known to human history is occurring along the west coast of North America, with sea stars disappearing from Alaska to Baja. Citizen scientists using iNaturalist, and also helping via plain old data sheets and pencil, make it possible to monitor this gigantic landscape. There are simply not enough scientists to do that.

Citizen science extends the spatial reach of science, as I just described, and it also makes possible a much deeper temporal understanding of how nature is working. In my book I write about David Inouye’s path-breaking research on phenology at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte, Colorado. With other professionals, Inouye has documented the date of first, peak, and last blooms of wildflowers since the 1970s. He’s also tracked the comings and goings of pollinators, and when small mammals emerge from hibernation. The grist of Inouye’s work however, is made possible by the efforts over the same time period of one Billy Barr, a citizen scientist who has every year fastidiously documented the weight and depth of snowfall in the area, as well as the date it stars to melt. In sum, Inouye and Barr have shown that snow is melting earlier and earlier, triggering flowers to bloom, but pollinators haven’t changed their schedule, and are increasingly missing the food source historically available at Crested Butte during that time. This kind of biotic “mismatch” is a growing phenomenon of climate change, and we would not be able to document it without citizen scientists.

How does CNPS fit into the picture?

MH: Citizen science is about much more than data points. It is about being where you are, knowing what other life forms are present with you, how living and nonliving systems create the world we call home, and how all this evolved. We are darn lucky to live in our own California Floristic Province, which CNPS helps document, conserve, explain, and celebrate. Citizens participating in the CNPS Native Plant Treasure Hunt help tell the story of the special plants that ground our sense of belonging. This is our time, this is our place: discovering these species is a revelation that helps us co-create a vibrant future. Co-creation is citizen science.

Learn More

Citizen Science Websites

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