Citizen Science: Engaging People in Conservation Research

Zoo Corps volunteers helped the Institute’s Applied Plant Ecology Division plant cactus to restore coastal sage scrub environment.

Zoo Corps volunteers helped the Institute’s Applied Plant Ecology Division plant cactus to restore coastal sage scrub environment.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend one of the first meetings of the newly formed San Diego Citizen Science Network. A multitude of stakeholders attended including educators, university graduate students, local government officials, and researchers from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (“the Institute”). It was very exciting to be with people from so many different backgrounds and institutions who all shared the same vision: to increase and streamline the potential for citizen science opportunities throughout San Diego County.

The term “citizen science” is a reference to public engagement opportunities in scientific investigations. Even though participants often have limited or no scientific background, they can still play a crucial role in asking questions, collecting data, and interpreting results that support meaningful scientific research. These types of programs provide an opportunity to increase public scientific literacy and involve individuals in various components of the scientific process. This can prove especially useful for answering scientific questions that require data to be gathered or processed over long periods of time and large geographic areas.

Citizen science is an extremely vital component of the work that we do here at the Institute. Without our many passionate volunteers who assist with data collection and entry, we would not be able to conduct research at the same magnitude that we currently realize. Improvements in technology (and its associated decreasing costs) have led to an exponential increase in the amount of data we are able to collect (a single camera trap can generate thousands of images a week!). Trained volunteers able to identify species and individual animals in photos have substantially helped our efforts to evaluate the survival and overall success of translocated squirrels and to monitor western burrowing owl nests. Volunteers also participate in surveys for coastal cactus wrens, observe giant panda behavior, help with planting of cacti to restore local habitat, and help us collect feedback from guests about their experiences at the Zoo and Safari Park.



The acoustic structure of a gibbon “duet call” becomes longer and more complex over time. Recordings made by guests can provide researchers with a better understanding of how and why these changes occur and how they can be studied to estimate population numbers in the wild:

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Public participation in scientific data collection can also serve to enhance the guest experience at our facilities where guests can have opportunities to engage and connect with wildlife in novel ways. For example, the Institute’s Behavioral Biology Division plans to create a smartphone/tablet application that will allow guests to collect valuable biological data on the animals they are enjoying while visiting the Zoo or Safari Park. Such observations (including both behavior and associated vocalizations) can provide us with a greater understanding of how animals utilize their enclosures and how individuals interact with each other. This level of interaction also gives the guest the chance to be a direct participant in the scientific process and learn more about how we collect and use data.

The creation of this local citizen science network is really exciting. It will serve as a great tool to bring researchers, educators, and the general public together—a sort of match-making service for individuals and organizations wanting to be involved. This kind of collaboration allows researchers to help educators develop scientifically rigorous protocols for data collection and serve as mentors for students. Participating land managers and institutions can also provide property access, different groups can collect data for the same project across a large landscape over multiple years, and all teams collectively build an essential dataset to answer a research question.

Everyday people across the world help collect scientific data, from studies in museums where individuals are examining specimens that have been in storage for years to activities in cities and parks where counting and identifying birds provides much-needed data on avian populations. People are looking in their own backyards and recording when flowers bloom and when leaves fall to contribute to our understanding of changing climates and environments. There are so many ways to get involved as a citizen scientist, and I encourage you to participate in any way you can. As a researcher here at the Institute, I can truly testify to the invaluable contributions that volunteers make to our projects. Get involved as a volunteer with San Diego Zoo Global or another organization that interests you and begin your own adventure as a citizen scientist!

Susanne Marczak is a research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Muddy Days in the Soil Lab.

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