Natural Data Detectives

Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction
By Mary Ellen Hannibal
The Experiment, 2016, 395 pages

After the Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled perhaps as much as 38 million gallons of crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound, lawyers for Exxon successfully argued for minimal damages related to bird mortality because no one had a clue how many birds were there prior to the disaster. book cover thumbnailBut that was 1989, before armies of citizen scientists started recording individual observations of the natural world. Today, vigilant citizen-based monitoring of coastlines yields plenty of big data for courts to consider.

In her enlightening and far-reaching new book, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, science writer Mary Ellen Hannibal brings us up to speed on the ever-important role citizen scientists play in conservation biology. Hope dies last for these extraordinary people.

Hannibal reminds us that science still happens in the field. We go out looking for patterns in nature. Looking at populations. The more eyes the better. The whole trick for a citizen scientist is capturing the truth about what’s out there while staying focused on the long game.

In the telling, Hannibal sprouts tendrils and digressions and asides. And the book is richer for it. She keeps her head raised and swiveling in all directions. She’s got zest, grit, smarts, gratitude, optimism, and a bottomless capacity for curiosity. You sense that what didn’t make it into the book made it into the writer.

The book gives a smart historical perspective on citizen scientists. They follow in the footprints of Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Aldo Leopold, Ed Ricketts, and many other legends of the field. It also gives us fundamental lessons in ecology. We’re reminded, for example, that a bear clutching salmon out of a stream, tossing the remains on shore, and then defecating deep in the woods is a “bridge between aquatic and terrestrial nutrient cycling.”

Hannibal talks with experts and concludes that science needs us. And we need nature. We need to know the capital-T Truth about the state of our planet. We must know what we have lost and what more we stand to lose.

Character is plot in Citizen Scientist. A remarkable cast of players spins new strands of data with all the urgency of love. The “Heroes and Hope” in the book’s title refers to those amateur scientists (Hannibal is one of them) and their credentialed scientist handlers. They wade into the deep end of the pool of nature, sail coastlines, stake out islands, and climb mountains to gather data on a myriad of species, as well as on the habitat needed to keep an ecosystem intact.

Collectively, citizen scientists cover large geographic areas over long periods of time, capturing big-picture data and allowing researchers to examine the denser data points. We’re told “mere metaphors and world views must be eliminated, replaced with more math.” When monitoring nature, you don’t start off with a question. It’s a paradigm of complexity, and that’s where the intelligence is.

Here’s a useful tip from Hannibal: If you want to observe life forms, stake out the food sources.

Citizen scientists also record illegal fishing, pollution, and just about everything else that might contribute to our tipping point of destruction. And let’s not forget culture. Young Native Americans, for example, are interviewing and recording elders.

But the elephant in the dark room of this book is extinction. “Many of the things we have done to the earth might be remediated, at least to some degree,” one scientist tells Hannibal. “Species loss, however, is not one of them.”

And then there is this whole other arc to her story. Here’s a line from Hannibal that sums it up: “Citizen science is not only about data collection; it’s about making a bridge between nature’s drama and people like me. We are in it together. Make no mistake.” It matters that when we have a chance to be observers of the natural world, decent if amateur chroniclers of this island we call Earth, we seize it.

I regret many things in my life. But I never regret those heart-tugging unpredictable walks monitoring birdlife around our property in Utah. And then giving a wee bit back to the massive citizen science eBird project of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. My dog, always by my side on these morning outings, participates in the University of Washington’s Dog Aging Project. Long may she live.

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