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Citizen science: Lodi under the microscope

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Posted: Saturday, October 7, 2017 8:30 am

Every month, groups of birders gather at the Woodbridge Wilderness Area, Cosumnes River Preserve and the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery to count birds.

Students from Lodi’s two high schools head out to Lodi Lake and the river to test water quality, while elementary school classes study the creatures that have moved into leaf packs.

Dedicated volunteers study wildlife at the zoo, and children track bugs and plants at local parks.

It used to be that science was something done by researchers with doctorates in a lab — or at least, that was the public perception.

Now, citizen scientists of all ages are learning more about the field — and the world around them — by helping the pros.

“Citizen science is this big movement to get the community more involved with science, and more science literate,” said Jen Young, educational program coordinator at the World of Wonders Science Museum.

Also known as crowdsourced science and civic science, citizen science has been a growing trend since the 1990s. Amateur scientists — everyday people with no special training beyond what project leaders teach them about collecting data — have become a valuable part of the scientific process.

The concept isn’t new. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, for example, where volunteers across the country help conduct an avian census, started in 1900.

The ease with which people can learn about opportunities, participate and share data through the internet and social media has vastly expanded the possibilities of citizen science. Smartphones have propelled it even farther, as participants can upload their data with the touch of a button.

For example, at the WOW Museum, children learn how to use smartphone and tablet apps to help collect information about local plants and animals.

“Through our camps, we use a free app called iNaturalist,” Young said.

The students can take photos of animals, insects or plants and submit them to a database. From there, scientists identify the species and verify the location where it was seen. That turns photos into lab-quality data, Young said.

And it’s not just for kids. Because the app is freely available, anyone can download it and contribute to the project, he said.

In some cities, museums have whole departments devoted to citizen science projects, Young said.

Another local example is the annual Coastal Cleanup. Lodi holds two each year, one in September and one in April. In addition to cleaning up Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River area, volunteers count and document each piece of trash they collect. This data goes to researchers who track garbage going into waterways.

The work these citizen scientists do is valuable — in just a few hours, they can collect data that would take a small team of scientists days or years to gather.

Lodi’s fall Coastal Cleanup is just one of thousands of such events around the world, with more than 12 million volunteers.

The information about the collected garbage is posted online on the Ocean Conservancy’s website.

But a project doesn’t have to be global to be important.

The Storm Drain Detectives takes high school students out of the classroom to Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River. There, they get hands-on with environmental science, measuring and monitoring Lodi’s water quality.

The program has been going strong in the city since 2000, said Kathy Grant, the City of Lodi’s watershed program coordinator.

And after 18 years, the data shows some definite patterns, she said.

“You can see trends. You can see the wet season and dry season, and they’re very different,” she said.

The Storm Drain Detectives meet twice a month on Tuesdays to take their measurements, a process that takes a little over two hours. While the program revolves around high school science students, volunteers of all ages are welcome, Grant said.

Beginning last year, elementary students have been helping to monitor the lake’s water quality with leaf packs — net bags of dry leaves that are placed in the water. The packs attract water bugs known as macroinvertebrates, and the types of bugs that show up can offer clues to the ecosystem’s health.

This year, classes from Reese and Heritage elementaries will join in the project, Grant said, and there’s room for other classes, too.

“The leaf packs will be put out on a (Storm Drain Detectives) monitoring day, and then picked up two weeks later,” she said.

Volunteers are welcome to help sort and count the macroinvertebrates. Both programs are used by the city to monitor local water quality, and the data is available at the city’s website, www.lodi.gov/ Storm_Drain_Detectives.

Another new project, led by Dr. Zach Stahlschmidt of the University of the Pacific and undergraduate student Dustin Johnson, is looking at land-based insects: specifically, ants.

Ants are found on every continent except Antarctica, the pair note. Stahlschmidt and Johnson are using Backyard ANTology to better monitor local species of ants, as well as keep an eye on invasive species.

“There are species like the fire ant that exist in Texas, and it’s slowly creeping (into California),” said Kristy Benner, education coordinator at Micke Grove Zoo.

Both the World of Wonders and Micke Grove Zoo have kits available for volunteers who want to try their hand at ant wrangling.

The kits include materials to collect ants at four different locations, plus a pre-paid envelope to mail the specimens back to Pacific. Data is posted to the project’s website, backyardantology.weebly.com.

“A lot of our volunteers and docents have taken them home,” Benner said.

While most citizen science projects require only a short-term commitment — many like the Coastal Cleanup or the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count are once or twice a year affairs — some are looking for dedicated volunteers.

One of these is at Micke Grove Zoo. Part of the zoo’s mission is to conduct conservation research, with a focus on animal behavior, health and welfare.

Conservation research volunteers work with zoo curator Avanti Mallapur to observe animals like the zoo’s snow leopard. That research requires some extensive training and a real commitment, Benner said. For that reason, there’s an interview process for anyone who hopes to volunteer with the program.

There are plenty of chances to help monitor wildlife in the Lodi area even for those who can’t commit to a project as extensive as the zoo program, though.

From monthly bird counts conducted throughout the area by the San Joaquin Audubon Society to more self-directed cataloging of species through smartphone apps like iNaturalist or Project Noah, Lodians can contribute to scientific research going on all over the world.

“Normal citizens are actually helping scientists map species in our area,” Young said.

Chicago Tribune staff writer Grace Young contributed to this report.

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