Volunteer “community scientists” do a pretty darn good job generating usable data

When museum-goers did a community science activity in an exhibit at the Field Museum (USA), the data they produced were largely accurate.

Left: Cuong Pham, Jimmy Crigler, and Joshua Torres working on a community science platform in an exhibit at the Field Museum (photo by Melanie Pivarski, Roosevelt University).
Right: The microscopic leaves of a liverwort, a primitive plant that helps scientists track climate change (photo by Lauren Johnson, Field Museum).
Original publication by the Field Museum

Ask any scientist — for every “Eureka!” moment, there’s a lot of less-than-glamorous work behind the scenes. Making discoveries about everything from a new species of dinosaur to insights about climate change entails some slogging through seemingly endless data and measurements that can be mind-numbing in large doses.

Community science shares the burden with volunteers who help out, for even just a few minutes, on collecting data and putting it into a format that scientists can use. But the question remains how useful these data actually are for scientists. 

A new study, authored by a combination of high school students, undergrads and grad students, and professional scientists showed that when museum-goers did a community science activity in an exhibit, the data they produced were largely accurate, supporting the argument that community science is a viable way to tackle big research projects.

“It was surprising how all age groups from young children, families, youth, and adults were able to generate high-quality taxonomic data sets, making observations and preparing measurements, and at the same time empowering community scientists through authentic contributions to science,”

says Matt von Konrat (Field Museum, USA), an author of the paper in the journal Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal) and the head of plant collections at Chicago’s Field Museum.

“This study demonstrates the wonderful scientific outcomes that occur when an entire community comes together,”

says Melanie Pivarski, an associate professor of mathematics at Roosevelt University (USA) and the study’s lead author.

“We were able to combine a small piece of the Field Museum’s vast collections, their scientific knowledge and exhibit creation expertise, the observational skills of biology interns at Northeastern Illinois University (USA), led by our collaborator Tom Campbell, and our Roosevelt University student’s data science expertise. The creation of this set of high-quality data was a true community effort!” 

The study focuses on an activity in an exhibition at the Field Museum, in which visitors could partake in a community science project. In the community science activity, museumgoers used a large digital touchscreen to measure the microscopic leaves photographs of plants called liverworts. 

These tiny plants, the size of an eyelash, are sensitive to climate change, and they can act like a canary in a coal mine to let scientists know about how climate change is affecting a region. It’s helpful for scientists to know what kinds of liverworts are present in an area, but since the plants are so tiny, it’s hard to tell them apart. The sizes of their leaves (or rather, lobes — these are some of the most ancient land plants on Earth, and they evolved before true leaves had formed) can hint at their species. But it would take ages for any one scientist to measure all the leaves of the specimens in the Field’s collection. Enter the community scientists.

“Drawing a fine line to measure the lobe of a liverwort for a few hours can be mentally strenuous, so it’s great to have community scientists take a few minutes out of their day using fresh eyes to help measure a plant leaf. A few community scientists who’ve helped with classifying acknowledged how exciting it is knowing they are playing a helping hand in scientific discovery,”  

says Heaven Wade, a research assistant at the Field Museum who began working on the MicroPlants project as an undergraduate intern.

Community scientists using the digital platform measured thousands of microscopic liverwort leaves over the course of two years.

“At the beginning, we needed to find a way to sort the high quality measurements out from the rest. We didn’t know if there would be kids drawing pictures on the touchscreen instead of measuring leaves or if they’d be able to follow the tutorial as well as the adults did. We also needed to be able to automate a method to determine the accuracy of these higher quality measurements,”

says Pivarski.

To answer these questions, Pivarski worked with her students at Roosevelt University to analyze the data. They compared measurements taken by the community scientists with measurements done by experts on a couple “test” lobes; based on that proof of concept, they went on to analyze the thousands of other leaf measurements. The results were surprising.

“We were amazed at how wonderfully children did at this task; it was counter to our initial expectations. The majority of measurements were high quality. This allowed my students to create an automated process that produced an accurate set of MicroPlant measurements from the larger dataset,”

says Pivarski.

The researchers say that the study supports the argument that community science is valuable not just as a teaching tool to get people interested in science, but as a valid means of data collection.

“Biological collections are uniquely poised to inform the stewardship of life on Earth in a time of cataclysmic biodiversity loss, yet efforts to fully leverage collections are impeded by a lack of trained taxonomists. Crowd-sourced data collection projects like these have the potential to greatly accelerate biodiversity discovery and documentation from digital images of scientific specimens,”

says von Konrat.
Research article:

Pivarski M, von Konrat M, Campbell T, Qazi-Lampert AT, Trouille L, Wade H, Davis A, Aburahmeh S, Aguilar J, Alb C, Alferes K, Barker E, Bitikofer K, Boulware KJ, Bruton C, Cao S, Corona Jr. A, Christian C, Demiri K, Evans D, Evans NM, Flavin C, Gillis J, Gogol V, Heublein E, Huang E, Hutchinson J, Jackson C, Jackson OR, Johnson L, Kirihara M, Kivarkis H, Kowalczyk A, Labontu A, Levi B, Lyu I, Martin-Eberhardt S, Mata G, Martinec JL, McDonald B, Mira M, Nguyen M, Nguyen P, Nolimal S, Reese V, Ritchie W, Rodriguez J, Rodriguez Y, Shuler J, Silvestre J, Simpson G, Somarriba G, Ssozi R, Suwa T, Syring C, Thirthamattur N, Thompson K, Vaughn C, Viramontes MR, Wong CS, Wszolek L (2022) People-Powered Research and Experiential Learning: Unravelling Hidden Biodiversity. Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e83853. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e83853

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Citizen scientists from three continents help discover a new, giant slug from Europe

The animal, as big as a medium-sized carrot, was discovered on a citizen-science expedition and jointly described by its participants.

You might think that Europe is so well studied that no large animals remain undiscovered. Yet today, a new species of giant keelback slug from Montenegro was announced in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal. The animal, as big as a medium-sized carrot, was discovered on a citizen-science expedition and jointly described by its participants.

A living specimen of Limax pseudocinereoniger on a researcher’s hand.

The international team of citizen scientists from Italy, the Netherlands, Serbia, South Africa, and the United States found the slug in July 2019 while exploring the spectacular Tara Canyon, Europe’s deepest gorge, on inflatable rafts. The brownish-grey animals, with a sharp ridge along the back, and 20 cm in length when fully stretched, were hiding under rocky overhangs in the narrowest part of the ravine.

A living specimen of Limax pseudocinereoniger seen from the side. Photo by Pierre Escoubas

At first, the newly discovered slugs seemed superficially indistinguishable from the ash-black keelback slug (Limax cinereoniger), which also lives in the Tara Canyon. The team had to use a portable DNA lab to work out that there is a 10% difference between the two slugs in the so-called DNA barcode. Moreover, when they dissected a few of them, they found differences in the reproductive organs as well. This was enough to decide that a new species had been discovered, and they named it Limax pseudocinereoniger to indicate its similarity to L. cinereoniger.

The field trip was run by Taxon Expeditions, which organises real scientific expeditions for the general public, with the aim to make scientific discoveries. Rick de Vries, a web editor and illustrator from Amsterdam who found the first specimen of L. pseudocinereoniger, says: “It’s an incredible thrill to hold an animal in your hands and to know that it is still unknown to science”.

Citizen scientists studying specimens in the team’s field lab in Montenegro.

Zoologist Iva Njunjić, one of the authors of the paper, thinks that more unknown species are likely to be found in Tara Canyon and the Durmitor National Park, of which it is part. “Using a combination of DNA analysis and anatomy will probably reveal more species that are identical on the outside but actually belong to different species,” she says.

In 2023, Taxon Expeditions plans to take a new team of citizen scientists to Montenegro with a mission to discover new species and document the hidden biodiversity.

Taxon Expeditions was founded by Iva Njunjić and Menno Schilthuizen of Naturalis Biodiversity Center and specialises in ‘taxonomy tourism’ trips in Brunei, Italy, Montenegro, Panama, and the Netherlands.

Original source:

Schilthuizen M, Thompson CG, de Vries R, van Peursen ADP, Paterno M, Maestri S, Marcolongo L, Esposti CD, Delledonne M, Njunjić I (2022) A new giant keelback slug of the genus Limax from the Balkans, described by citizen scientists. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e69685. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e69685

Citizen scientists help expose presence of invasive Asian bamboo longhorn beetle in Europe

A worryingly high number of Asian bamboo longhorn beetles turn out to have been emerging across Europe for about a century already, finds an international research team. Curiously, the records of the invasive, non-native to the Old Continent species are mostly sourced from citizen scientists and online platforms, which proves the power of involving the public in species monitoring. The study is published in the open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal BioRisk.

A worryingly high number of Asian bamboo longhorn beetles (Chlorophorus annularis) turn out to have been emerging across Europe for about a century already, finds an international research team, headed by researchers from the Center of Natural History, University of Hamburg, Germany. Curiously, the recent records of the invasive, non-native to the Old Continent species are mostly sourced from citizen scientists and online platforms, which proves the power of involving the public in species monitoring. The study is published in the open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal BioRisk.

In our globalised world, which has already become victim to climate change and biodiversity loss, non-native species present a further threat to our ecosystems. Thus, the rising accounts of newly recorded alien species are of serious concern to both scientists and (inter)national institutions. However, surveying non-native species remains limited to a small fraction of species: those known to be particularly invasive and harmful.

One of the multitude of non-native species that are currently lacking efficient and coordinated surveying efforts is the Asian bamboo longhorn beetle (Chlorophorus annularis). Naturally occurring in temperate and tropical Southeast Asia, the insect feeds on a variety of plants, but prefers bamboo. Thus, due to the international trade of bamboo and the insects ‘travelling’ with the wood, the species has continuously been expanding its distribution around the world. Its first appearance in Europe was recorded back in 1924, when it was identified in England.

Bamboo longhorn beetle captured in Braintree, United Kingdom
Photo by Stephen Rolls

Back to our days, during a fieldwork practice for students at the University of Hamburg, held within the city because of the COVID-19 travelling restrictions, the team stumbled across a longhorn beetle, later identified by scientists as the Asian bamboo borer. Furthermore, it became clear that there were even more recent records published across different citizen science platforms, such as iNaturalist, iRecord and Waarneming.nl. Having taken the contacts of the citizen scientists from there, the researchers approached them to ask for additional collection details and images, which were readily provided. As a result, the researchers formally confirmed the presence of the Asian bamboo borer in Belgium and the Netherlands. In total, they reported thirteen new introductions of the species in Europe, which translates to a 42% increase of the records of the species for the continent.

“In light of the warming climate and a growing abundance of ornamental bamboo plants in Europe, the beetle might get permanently established. Not only could it become a garden pest, but it could also incur significant costs to the bamboo-processing industry,”

comments Dr Matthias Seidel, lead author of the study.

Having realised the potential of citizen science for bridging the gaps in invasive species monitoring, the researchers now propose for specialised platforms to be established with the aim to familiarise non-professional scientists with non-native species of interest and provide them with more sophisticated reporting tools. The aim is to speed up the identification of important alien species by collating records of specific species of interest, which are flagged and regularly exported from other citizen science databases and platforms. 

Bamboo longhorn beetle captured in Lincoln, United Kingdom
Photo by Sheena Cotter

Original source: 

Seidel M, Lüttke M, Cocquempot C, Potts K, Heeney WJ, Husemann M (2021) Citizen scientists significantly improve our knowledge on the non-native longhorn beetle Chlorophorus annularis (Fabricius, 1787) (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae) in Europe. BioRisk 16: 1–13. https://doi.org/10.3897/biorisk.16.61099

Citizen scientists discover 6 new species of beetles in Borneo

Scientists estimate that 80% of the world’s animal and plant species are still unknown. Although the work of taxonomists (whose job is to describe and name those) is appreciated by the general public, funding for taxonomy is dwindling. Moreover, while the areas hosting most of the unknown biodiversity are under threat, time is running out.

To help solve this problem, Taxon Expeditions has become the first organisation in the world to initiate field courses for citizen scientists in biodiversity hotspots, with the aim of discovering, describing, naming, and publishing new species under the slogan “You can be Darwin too”.

“Relying on extra hands means that unknown species can be discovered faster and,” says Taxon Expeditions director and biologist Dr. Iva Njunjic, “for some of that work, you don’t even need to be a trained taxonomist.”

Taxon Expedition’s first field course to the remote 30-kilometre-wide Maliau Basin in Malaysian Borneo, yielded six new species. Three of those, all tiny beetles living in rainforest leaf litter, are published today in the Biodiversity Data Journal. The other three, belonging to the family Elmidae (riffle beetles) will be published next year.

Citizen scientists discovered these species during a field exercise employing the method of ‘Winkler extraction’. Using this technique, dead leaves are collected from the rainforest floor before being sieved, so that hundreds of tiny soil-dwelling insects can be revealed.

Professor Menno Schilthuizen recognised three of those as new species. Under his guidance, the participants studied, photographed and drew the specimens in the expedition’s field lab, extracted their DNA and finalised a draft ready for publication.

The participants also came up with the original names for the three new species. English teacher Sean Otani from Japan decided to name Colenisia chungi after Malaysian entomologist Arthur Chung. The names for Clavicornaltica sabahensis and Dermatohomoeus maliauensis referring to the studied sites were suggested by staff and rangers of Maliau Conservation Area during the farewell party for the course.

All collected samples are deposited in the insect collection of Universiti Malaysia Sabah and the rest of the results – in online databases. This way, these discoveries will help other biologists working on Borneo’s biodiversity.

In March 2018, Taxon Expeditions will again head for Maliau Basin with a new group of participants, hopefully discovering more new species for science. Meanwhile, this year’s team look back on having contributed to real scientific discoveries.

“I had no idea how different, how exciting, how interesting it was going to be. It has been an amazing experience,” says retired corporate account manager Mary Erickson from Canada.

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Original source:

Schilthuizen M, Seip LA, Otani S, Suhaimi J, Njunjic I (2017) Three new minute leaf litter beetles discovered by citizen scientists in Maliau Basin, Malaysian Borneo (Coleoptera: Leiodidae, Chrysomelidae). Biodiversity Data Journal 5: e21947. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.5.e21947

Nature Conservation Special: Guidelines for the monitoring of beetles protected in Europe

In a follow-up to a recent special issue, 8 research articles outline a set of verified guidelines for the monitoring of 5 saproxylic beetle species listed in the Habitats Directive

In a set of eight research publications, scientists tested various methods for the monitoring of five European saproxylic (i.e. dependent on dead wood) beetle species protected by the Habitats Directive. The aim of their work was to test and propose a standard method for each species. A key role in this conservation initiative was played by citizen scientists who made it possible for sufficient data to be collected within a significantly shorter time frame.

The special issue “Guidelines for the monitoring of the saproxylic beetles protected in Europe” is the second in succession published in the open access journal Nature Conservation. Both are produced within the framework of the European Union’s LIFE Programme Project “Monitoring of insects with public participation” (LIFE11 NAT/IT/000252 MIPP) and were presented at the European Workshop held in Mantova in May 2017. Colonel Franco Mason, project manager of the MIPP project, notes that the workshop was aimed primarily at monitoring of saproxylic beetles.

While the first article collection focused on reporting recent findings derived from monitoring surveys across the European Union, the papers in the latest issue are devoted to testing various methods for the monitoring of five selected species of protected beetles, in order to determine the most efficient methods and, subsequently, to propose them as standard methods.

12761_Public participation 2nd tweetCuriously, the public participation in the project was not limited to ecology and entomology semi-experts and aficionados. The team specifically targeted children when recruiting volunteers. One of the dissemination activities of the MIPP project was the “MIPP-iacciono gli insetti” (translated to “I like insects” from Italian), where 3000 students from primary to high school undertook 60 activities per year in order to learn how to locate and identify the target insects.

“Participation by children in environmental education programmes seems to have a great impact on their attitude and behaviour,” notes Giuseppe Carpaneto, Roma Tre University and his co-authors in their introductory article.

“Some studies have shown that children who participate in such programmes are more concerned about nature, want to learn more about environmental issues and are more prone to follow pro-environmental behaviour (e.g. waste recycling) than children who did not participate”.

In another article, included in the special issue, Fabio Mosconi of the Italian Agricultural Research Council and Sapienza University of Rome and his co-authors tested whether a specially trained Golden Retriever could locate the threatened hermit beetle faster and more efficiently than scientists using the standard “wood mould sampling” method.

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Additional information:

About the Life project MIPP

The main objective of the project MIPP is to develop and test methods for the monitoring of five beetle species listed in Annexes II and IV of the Habitats Directive (Osmoderma eremitaLucanus cervusCerambyx cerdoRosalia alpinaMorimus funereus).

A Bed & Breakfast in L.A. reveals the lifestyle of a secretive fly species

For nearly 30 years, Dr. Brian Brown knew about a mysterious unidentified phorid fly species, whose females would often be spotted flying above mushrooms, while the males were nowhere to be found.

Little did anyone know that this years-long puzzle would be solved once and for all after a surprising call came in earlier this year, in April.

Los Angeles Bed & Breakfast owners Patsy Carter and Lisa Carter-Davis had decided to alert entomologists about the newly emerged numerous mushrooms in their yard.

The study is published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal by Dr. Brian Brown and his colleague at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Emily A. Hartop. It is the latest in a series of publications resulting from the extensive BioScan Project, which surveys the biodiversity in the Los Angeles area and was launched in 2012 by the NHMLA.

It turned out that these mushrooms were hosting the mysterious flies. Females were ovipositing in the mushroom caps with the larvae subsequently developing and feeding on the lower surface of the fungi, deep within the gills. Later, the larvae would exit the mushroom to pupate into the soil underneath before emerging as adults.

Most importantly, the team managed to collect specimens of the previously unknown males, which allowed them to successfully identify the mysterious species as Megaselia marquezi. Over the span of the BioScan Project, the species had already been known to be the sixth most commonly collected one around Los Angeles, yet its lifestyle has remained a secret until now.

“About 100 species, mostly of Megaselia, are known from Los Angeles, but many were new to science and had nothing known of their lifestyle,” explain the authors. “Matching a lifestyle with a species previously known only from a name is a significant accomplishment.”

They also noted that, “We can do great things with the help of citizen scientists, who extend our reach into urban areas that are generally off-limits”.

“Possibly, the widespread irrigation of lawns allows fungal growth that supports an abundant fungivore community, but our ignorance of the fauna of the surrounding natural areas makes such statements highly speculative.”

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Original source:

Brown B, Hartop E (2017) Mystery mushroom malingerers: Megaselia marquezi Hartop et al. 2015 (Diptera: Phoridae). Biodiversity Data Journal 5: e15052. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.5.e15052

Foreign beetle species recorded for the first time in Canada thanks to citizen science

With social networks abound, it is no wonder that there is an online space where almost anyone can upload a photo and report a sighting of an insect. Identified or not, such public records can turn out to be especially useful — as in the case of an Old World beetle species — which appears to have recently entered Canada, and was recently discovered with the help of the BugGuide online portal and its large citizen scientist community.

Having identified the non-native rove beetle species Ocypus nitens in Ontario, Canada, based on a single specimen, author Dr Adam Brunke, affiliated with the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes, Ottawa, sought additional data to confirm his discovery.

Eventually, he found them in the citizen-generated North American digital insect collection BugGuide, created and curated by an online community of naturalists, insect enthusiasts and entomologists. After he verified as many as 26 digital photographs to be records of the same species, he concluded that the rove beetle has expanded its distribution to two new locations — Ontario, its first in Canada, and the state of Vermont, USA. His study is published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal.

The species O. nitens is a fairly large rove beetle measuring between 12 and 20 mm in length and visibly distinguished by the characteristic form of the head and relatively short forewings. Furthermore, the insect is quite easy to spot because it prefers living around humans, often being spotted in woodlots and backyards.

As a result of the hundreds of years of Transatlantic trade, many species have been transported accidentally among various produce to subsequently adapt and establish on the other side of the ocean. While the rove beetle species O. nitens was first reported from the Americas in 1944, it was not until the turn of the new millennium that it escaped the small area in New England, USA, which had so far been its only habitat on the continent. Then, its distributional range began to rapidly expand. It is unlikely that the presence of this rove beetle, especially in Ontario, has long remained undetected, because of thorough and multiple sampling initiatives undertaken by professionals and students in the past.

The effect of the newly recorded species on the native rove beetles is still unknown. On the other hand, there are observations that several related beetles have experienced a drop in their populations in comparison to the records from the beginning of the century.

“Citizen-generated distributional data continues to be a valuable ally in the detection of adventive insects and the study of their distributional dynamics,” concludes the author.

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Original source:

Brunke A (2016) First detection of the adventive large rove beetle Ocypus nitens (Schrank) in Canada and an update of its Nearctic distribution using data generated by the public. Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e11012. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e11012

Being systematic about the unknown: Grid-based schemes could improve butterfly monitoring

Butterfly monitoring schemes are at the heart of citizen science, with the general public and researchers collaborating to discover how butterfly populations change over time. To develop the concept further, a new paper in the journal Nature Conservation shows how systematically placed, grid-based transects can help schemes by reducing habitat bias.

Rapidly increasing in number and popularity, Butterfly Monitoring Schemes have proved to be a method generating important, high-resolution data. Reliant on enthusiastic volunteers, who record butterflies along freely chosen transects, the collected observations are then used to explore and understand trends in butterfly numbers and distributions.

However, there is a risk associated with free site selection: some habitats can become underrepresented and monitoring results therefore less general than intended.

Butterfly hot-spots, such as semi-natural grasslands, tend to be favoured over less well-known environments. This means that butterflies living in other ‘less popular’ habitats, such as forests and wetlands, are covered less thoroughly and population declines of these species risk going undetected.

A team of Swedish researchers have now investigated the potential of a new, complimentary grid-based design, where butterfly recorders are to walk systematically placed transects across the country.

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The results of testing the new method showed that butterflies were abundant in traditionally overlooked habitats such as coniferous forests, bogs, and clear-cuts. Additionally, the systematic transects also performed well in avoiding habitat bias.

“Butterfly Monitoring Schemes are likely to benefit from adding grid-based butterfly transects as a complement to free site choice designs,” explains Dr. Lars B. Pettersson from Lund University. “Free and systematic site selection should not be seen as mutually exclusive, instead they can be used together to ensure high quality and inclusiveness of data for better assessing of future biodiversity trends.”

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Additional information:

This work has been carried out within the EU project STEP (FP7 grant 244090-STEP-CP-FP) and the Swedish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (Swedish EPA contract 2227-13-003). It is part of the strategic research area Biodiversity and Ecosystems in a Changing Climate, BECC.