In our complex and data-driven world, scientists face a major challenge to understand and document plant and animal species that may be in the process of disappearing. Climate change, habitat fragmentation, pollution and population growth are among the threats that are pushing some species toward extinction.
The good news is that overwhelmed researchers are getting an assist from a growing number of enthusiastic volunteers. Known as citizen scientists, these volunteers are using their eyes, ears and observations about the natural world to help scientists find answers to critical questions.
In her latest book, “Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” Mary Ellen Hannibal adeptly blends her own experience as a citizen scientist with historical anecdotes and interviews with researchers across many scientific fields to underscore how vitally important citizen research is to the world — and our future.
Hannibal pays passing homage to famous citizen scientists like Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin and then goes on to explain how today’s volunteers are helping scientists document changes in the natural world that could mean certain species are in trouble. For instance, it was a team of citizen scientists counting sea star populations a few years ago who first noticed and brought attention to an epidemic known as sea star wasting disease. This epidemic since has become the biggest marine die-off ever known.
Hannibal also introduces readers to a wide range of tools and technology available today to become a citizen scientist. For example, digital platforms such as Zooniverse and iNaturalist enable volunteers to join in far-flung research projects from their living rooms or document the flora or fauna they observe on outdoor treks. These new technologies have helped grow the citizen science movement and greatly increased the movement’s impact on scientific research and discovery, Hannibal says.
Hannibal also is the author of “The Spine of the Continent: The Most Ambitious Wildlife Conservation Project Ever Undertaken,” which was featured on Reader’s Corner in 2013. In her latest book, she weaves a story steeped in love and loss, both for a planet she sees imperiled, and for a father she recently lost. Thoughtful and passionate, “Citizen Scientist” is an inspiring read about how committed individuals continue to make a difference.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Hannibal, are at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to previous interviews anytime, download our free app for mobile devices from Google Play or the App Store.