Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Can Citizen Science Save Us?

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Voices for Biodiversity’s Advisory Board Member Mary Ellen Hannibal took the TEDx Stanford stage to discuss her journey towards becoming a citizen scientist, and how this discipline could save the world.

In her presentation, Hannibal recounts her visit to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, where she interviewed multiple scientists. While speaking with them, she was taken aback when all three scientists began to cry as they described runaway species extinction driven by human growth and consumption. In fact, Hannibal noted that not only are species going extinct, but there also are fewer individuals within species left on Earth. Quoting a 2014 article from Science, Hannibal explained that in the past 40 years we have documented 28 percent fewer vertebrates, 35 percent fewer butterflies and moths, and 1.5 billion fewer birds.

Hannibal felt disconcerted by the strong reactions she witnessed among the scientists, and told the audience that was the moment she decided to become involved in the movement to save global biodiversity. In her TEDx talk, Hannibal then shifted her presentation to cover what we can do to protect the wildlife that remains, beginning with the pronghorn antelope. 

Pronghorn antelope live in North America and are the second fastest land animal in the world. Researchers have discovered that the new infrastructure associated with fracking interrupts their migrations, causing many to die as they try to make their annual journey across the western half of the United States.

It was here that citizen science positively intervened. Researchers studying the antelope connected with people who lived near the pronghorn migration route. Their questions were simple, “Do you see pronghorn in your backyard? In your neighborhood?” Many locals had, though some as rarely as once per year. When the locals realized the path of the pronghorn antelope intersected with their own daily lives, they wanted to protect them.

People living near the pronghorn documented their sightings using iNaturalist, a citizen science platform available on both computers and smartphones. Thanks to this data, the pronghorn antelope migration was documented and then protected. Today, the pronghorn antelope migration route is the only protected migration pathway in the Lower 48 states.

iNaturalist and other citizen science platforms — such as eBird and Nature’s Notebook — crowdsource data collection for anyone interested in participating. Individuals upload their data, and scientists, researchers, politicians, land stewards, resource planners and other professionals use the data to make resource management decisions that protect wildlife like the longhorn antelope.

Hannibal concludes that citizen science is not only a conglomeration of data, but also a practice, “A practice that can help us do something that is very important, which is to get in better, healthier alignment with our own place in the cycle of life,” she explains.

“We watch one instance of life and we take note of it,” Hannibal says, which is a spiritual endeavor. She continues, “The wisdom traditions all ask us if you want to deepen your experience of life, the first thing to do is to start observing — observe your own breath, observe your own thoughts going by. Why wouldn’t we add this to our spiritual practice, to actually keep biodiversity going?”

Observation of flora and fauna through citizen science helps tell the story of the world, and can help protect biodiversity for future generations. Are you looking for a citizen science project to become involved in? Click here!

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