Counting Penguins for Science

I discovered a love for citizen science projects a few years ago, when a friend got me hooked on Snapshot Serengeti. After creating an account on their website, I had the chance to click through trail cam photos from a national park and conservation area in Tanzania. My goal was to find, identify, and count the animals captured in those photos to help with a population survey and create the dataset that would support many studies–from how and where animals move and cluster in the park, to how that changes over time.

slp-cheetah-with-cubs

Snapshot Serengeti features many amazing captures, like this one, on their blog.

As bored grad students know, many trail cam captures are duds, when the camera is triggered by swaying grass or other non-animal movement. But every few photos I’d catch a glimpse of Tanzanian wildlife in their natural environment: elephants, antelope, lions, and so many more. Oh, and wildebeests. So many, many wildebeests.   I don’t remember much of that weekend, it is lost in a fog of wildebeests and concentration, but I do know I was on a mission to find and identify my very own aardwolf capture.

Since that weekend, I’ve come to love and support many crowd-sourced science projects (many of which I discovered through Zooniverse, a platform for participants and researchers interested in crowd-sourced data collection projects. Scientific American also keeps a running list of projects). You can spy on penguins, characterize bat calls, and map the hills of Mars. You can measure hurricanes, track snow cover, and transcribe nautical logs to advance our understanding of our weather and climate. You can participate in amazing and important things.

penguinwatch-photo-2

Penguin Watch is a currently running project similar to Snapshot Serengeti.

In this age when science is so often viewed as opaque, dated, scary, or irrelevant, citizen science gives me great hope. We need skilled science communicators, and there are many people out there doing great work–including organizations and individuals right here in the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. But citizen science goes one step further. In addition to providing another way to learn about how science is conducted, it actually asks people to participate and invest in real, current research projects. Making science so accessible and allowing volunteers to have such an important role in data collection lets people from all walks of life experience what scientists already know: how great science is, and how exciting it can be to contribute to humanity’s collective knowledge.

So check it out! And then get everyone you know to check it out too.

You won’t be sorry you did.

Steph

Destruction Isn’t Always Black and Slimy

A balloon drifts by a nesting colony of the endangered California least tern. Photo credit: Marie Travers

A balloon drifts by a colony of endangered California least terns.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

During the Refugio Incident oil spill, I had the honor of spending time at the field staging area with some of our field responders. These folks spent their 12-hour workdays trekking up and down beaches, searching for and responding to reports of oiled wildlife.

Trash collected from a 1000 ft stretch of beach, among nesting least terns and snowy plovers. Photo credit: Marie Travers

Trash collected from a 1000 ft stretch of beach, among nesting least terns and snowy plovers.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

But even when they didn’t find oiled wildlife on their outings, they never returned empty-handed. Instead, they brought back handfuls of trash and litter, everything from plastic bags and bottle caps to fishing line and wire.

At the time, our staging area was located at a closed campground near a protected beach – protected because of the endangered and threatened species that could be found there, including a least tern colony and nesting snowy plovers. I’d estimate hundreds of species called that protected bit of beach home – there’s always far more wildlife than you see, and we encountered mallards, ruddy ducks, scoters, stilts, avocets, horned grebes, pelicans, gulls, harbor seals, sea lions, and… well, you get the idea.

Twice a day, we would walk that beach, searching for oiled animals and picking up trash. We never left empty-handed.

This isn’t unusual, and it isn’t good. As icky as we find litter like this (and it does have negative effects on the economy and human health), it’s downright devastating to wildlife. Fishing line causes terrible entanglement issues, animals can get stuck trying to get the last smidge of food out of a poorly-shaped yogurt container, and bits of plastic and foil are mistaken as food and ingested by many species. These things can and do result in injury and often death.

Entanglement Photo credit: Marie Travers

Entanglement in particular causes severe damage that does not always respond to treatment, though there are plenty of uplifting stories as well.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

We like to think that litter like this comes from careless people who can’t be bothered to find a trash can, and I’m sure some of it does. But the truth is litter comes from all sorts of places – many of which you’d never think of.

Photo credit: Marie Travers Sad that a symbol of celebration and victory can cause such unintended destruction!

Sad that a symbol of celebration and victory can cause such harm.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

Balloons for example – how many times have you seen an escaped balloon floating away from a kid at a fair, and thought about the danger it poses to wildlife? It seems pretty innocent, but once those balloons are out of sight, they don’t cease to exist. They end up in beautiful places like our protected beach, where they stick around for a long time (especially the mylar ones; those things are nigh-indestructible). Then wild animals can encounter them.

So how can you help?

  • At home, dispose of items like balloons, plastic bags, yogurt containers, and fishing line properly.
  • Reduce the use of these items, and you’ll reduce their presence in the waste-stream – for example, use reusable shopping bags and washable containers.
  • You can consider volunteering with a beach clean-up program, like the California Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday Sept 19, 2015 – but really, no need to wait, just pick up any trash you see when you go out to the beach!
  • Stop and help/report entangled or trapped wildlife; allowing permitted wildlife rehabilitation professionals to provide the care they need.

Be well, and thanks for caring about the animals!

Steph