As a general matter, science can seem really impenetrable to the average lay person. Any given subject synthesizes huge swaths of information and has its own specialized vocabulary. It may seem like us normals have nothing to contribute, but in fact we do, as evidenced by the growing number of citizen science projects. In fact, a recent study published in the journal Marine Biology found that, not only can citizen scientists contribute to the body of scientific knowledge, they can actually help save a species.
Contributing to science seems daunting because this isn’t the 1800s anymore; we’ve progressed so far passed pure observation that it’s sometimes hard to see how a non-professional scientist can participate.
However, Julia Reisser, a PhD student at the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute, studied how environmental variables affected green sea turtles using observational approaches. In a time when everything is going high tech, Reisser sees value in good, old fashioned observation:
“Several high-tech methods such as genetic analysis and satellite tracking are providing useful information regarding sea turtle ecology,” Ms. Reisser said. “However, observational approaches, extensively used by naturalists in early ecology, still have the potential to fill gaps in our marine ecological knowledge.”
“Underwater observations such as the ones described in this study could be incorporated to other research programs such Citizen Science projects that involve diving activities,” Ms. Reisser said.
“It could help deliver better management plans to protect sea turtle populations.”
I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon of the term “citizen science“ until a year or so ago, but the concept is much older than that. It’s basically just public collaboration in scientific research. It’s a way for passionate volunteers and amateur scientists to propose and contribute to projects alongside professional scientists. There are dozens of citizen science projects going on all the time. These types of projects benefit everyone involved; the public gets to see what it’s like to study the natural world, and the scientists get to interact and spread the excitement they feel for their field. It’s very cool.
One of the great things about recruiting amateurs to work on a research project is the capacity for gathering information. That’s what we need more of when it comes to green sea turtles. We know that green sea turtles migrate long distances from their feeding grounds to mating grounds, but most of their in-water activity is still a mystery. In Reisser’s study, she and other researchers studied the sea turtle’s shallow water feeding environment. It’s research like this that Reisser believes could easily be incorporated in citizen science projects.
The more people we have on the case, the better. Sea turtles have been on the decline worldwide in large part because they are commercially hunted and their eggs are collected for food. Coastal development has led to loss of habitat, and beachfront lighting disorients turtle hatchlings. Disease, marine pollution and getting caught in commercial fishing nets have also contributed to the species’ decline. The population of green sea turtles around Florida and the Pacific Coast of Mexico are considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act, while other populations are considered threatened.
While there are many threats to the green sea turtle, it’s exciting to know that regular people can potentially do something about it. In fact, there already exists sea turtle citizen science projects, just looking for volunteers.
Photo Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service