Aid research efforts by becoming a citizen scientist

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One example of citizen science—where members of the general public collect and share data about the natural world with researchers and scientists—is the tagging of monarch butterflies (NIT file photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Butterflies, birds, flowers, water—with a bit of knowledge and initiative, the general public can collect and share data about these things and more, aiding the research efforts of universities and other organizations. The concept is called citizen science.

“Anybody who has a little expertise in something can do it,” said Jim Langhus, a former MFL MarMac science teacher, who spoke about citizen science during the monthly coffee house program at Monona’s Murphy Helwig Library on March 6. “It’s fun, the challenge of it all and helping [researchers and scientists] gather volumes of information.”

One of Langhus’ most notable citizen science efforts is tagging monarch butterflies. Also a volunteer with Monona’s Butterfly Garden, he’s tagged thousands of butterflies with his family since 1994.

Tagging involves placing a small sticker on each butterfly’s hind wing. Each tag contains an identification number along with a phone number to call when the butterfly and tag are found. It does not hinder the monarch’s movement.

Information about the butterfly—the tag number, release date and location, gender and whether the monarch was reared or caught in the wild—is recorded and submitted to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit program based at the University of Kansas.

Monarch Watch pays people who live near where the monarchs winter in the mountains outside Mexico City to report the tags.

“They take a look at this information to see what’s going on nationwide,” Langhus said.

Through Monarch Watch, Langhus can also track his individual tags, to see if they’ve been recovered.

“Generally, the average is 2 percent,” he noted, “but ours is 3 percent, so we run a little bit better than most.”

To learn more about the monarchs’ migration, whether it’s as they head south or return north, Langhus visits the “Journey North” site at 

Journey North is a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. There, members of the public report sightings, and those sightings are then tracked as little dots on an interactive map for others to view.

“You can see how they build north,” Langhus said. “Every dot on there is a citizen scientist sighting.”

Journey North follows more than just monarchs, however.

“They have everything. You can follow monarchs, hummingbirds, robins,” Langhus explained. “You can get all kinds of little pieces of information.”

Even sunlight and seasons, tree leaf-outs, earthworms and singing frogs can be tracked and reported.

Some people have also created Red Emperor Tulip test gardens, submitting data about the flowers’ growth to show how geography and climate affect that growth. 

Either individuals or groups, like garden clubs or school classes, can grow these tall, big tulips. Citizen scientists must follow a set of instructions, though.

“They’ll specify you have to use this one and will have to buy it from one of these nurseries,” Langhus said. “They’ll tell you it has to have ‘x’ amount of sun and that it has to be drained in a certain way. They want it to be kind of standardized.” 

For those who are more interested in birds, Langhus said he’s participated in several bird counts, including the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count and Cornell University’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

Right now, he’s providing data to another Cornell-led project called FeederWatch. For two days out of the week, Langhus records the number of birds of each species he sees at his feeders. He also notes details like the temperature and any precipitation occurring at the time. The information goes into a database and is displayed in several graphs.

“You do this from September to the end of March,” Langhus said, “so I’m almost done for the year.”

Langhus said another unique resource is eBird, an online database of bird observations. There, you can submit your own sightings and view others’ sightings, learning about birding hot spots in your area.

“You can see what’s moving and where it’s moving,” he said. “When people said they were seeing snowy owls, that’s all citizen scientists reporting.”

The citizen scientist opportunities don’t end there. While he was a teacher, Langhus said his classes participated in a volunteer water monitoring project through the Iowa DNR. Kids learned about local bodies of water by determining flow rate and nitrate, pH and oxygen levels, among other details. They also learned more about the critters that lived in and near the water.

“It was a great way of gathering information, baseline data, to see what’s going on out there,” Langhus said.

Although the program, called IOWATER, has since been discontinued, the DNR still offers other opportunities for the public to aid local watershed projects and conservation groups. More information can be found by searching for “volunteer water monitoring” on the Iowa DNR website.

Langhus said there are countless other citizen science opportunities available, and encouraged others to pursue them. A good place to start is contacting a college or university.

“If you want to be in something, ask a university, and they’ll tell you,” he said. “They’re always looking for citizen scientists.”

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