Citizen Science in the Ottawa Area

Written with C Hanrahan │ FWG

Citizen scientists can be any age. The Macoun Club is a great way for your child to learn about nature (and yourself, should you decide to tag along!) Visit their website to learn more.

The word ‘scientist’ may conjure up test tubes, glasses and white lab coats, but an ecological scientist is more likely to be tramping around in Gore-Tex and North Face hikers. Nevertheless, ‘scientist’ also connotes a high level of post-secondary education and access to the ivory towers of academia. But anyone can be a scientist if willing to practice in an organised fashion – after all, a scientist is really just a person with knowledge, interest and the willingness to exercise due diligence over the quality of information he or she collects.

A citizen scientist might be you or your child. With the advent of interactive technologies, citizen science is taking off as a valuable tool for monitoring our natural world. Citizen science is simply where many people without specific qualifications but who do have the interest and time can participate in the collection of information for scientific analysis. You can be a seasoned naturalist or perhaps you can only recognise two butterfly species, but either way you can participate by sharing your knowledge and observations to create a mega sample across many geographies. With shrinking research budgets, especially in conservation ecology, citizen science is an ideal way to create large datasets for analysis.

Not without its own inherent issues (more on that in another post), most times citizen science is a great way to develop an open data set as opposed to a proprietary data set only a few people can access. Often, you can see other participants’ data and even perform your own studies, which is a wonderful way to explore natural science as a family. Here at FWG we participate in numerous online monitoring programmes, which we are happy to share with you in case you too wish to start monitoring in your own backyard or a park corner.

These are not the only monitoring initiatives in which we participate, since our volunteers also perform bioblitzes and the Christmas Bird Count, among others. We also participate in some plant watches, such as monitoring blooming times. At the Interpretation Centre, we keep a log book where volunteers note the number of birds and species they see, which is an activity we have performed for years. Citizen science can really be as simple as a notepad with pencil, species recognition ability and a magnifying glass for those tiny details!

Christine Hanrahan is our volunteer in charge of organising monitoring, and she developed this list.

First instar larva of the Monarch Butterfly, photo by C Robinson.

1) Monarch Larval Monitoring Project (MLMP)

The project is run by the University of Minnesota. In their words, the MLMP:

is a citizen science project involving volunteers from across theUnited States and Canada in monarch research. It was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota to collect long-term data on larval monarch populations and milkweed habitat. The overarching goal of the project is to better understand how and why monarch populations vary in time and space, with a focus on monarch distribution and abundance during the breeding season in North America.

FWG is signed up to do regular monitoring of the milkweed patches at the garden.  This means now that the milkweed is growing, checking on a weekly basis. We will be looking for monarch butterflies both adults and larvae (caterpillars).  We record the number of larvae seen, which instar they are (more on that below), density of milkweeds, and any other observation we think is relevant, such as evidence of predation or disease on the caterpillars.

2) Dragonfly Pond Watch

Common Green Darner

This project comes from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and is part of the larger Migratory Dragonfly Partnership. The project aims to collect information about two common migratory dragonflies, the Common Green Darner and the Black Saddlebags. The one regularly and commonly seen in our area is the Common Green Darner, while the Black Saddlebags is occasional. We will be monitoring the darner.

Because the Common Green Darner is migratory, we will be noting arrival in the spring and departure in the fall. But as the species also breeds in our area and at the FWG we’ll be looking for emergence of this species. This odonate is very common around the garden, seen on most visits, but as the project asks that we monitor the site at least once a month, (more if possible), it will be easy to do.

3)  Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

The atlas, run by Ontario Nature, in conjunction with various partners, is gathering observations from across the province on all herpetological species.

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on New England Aster. This species relies upon Pearly Everlasting plants on which to lay their eggs – so if you bought some at the Plant Sale keep an eye open for little larvae next year!

4) e-Butterfly

A relatively recent entry onto the ‘citizen science’ scene. This initiative is run out of the University of Ottawa by Max Larivee and Jeremy Kerr, and collects data on butterflies across the country. Observers record the species and the number of individuals per species, and submit photos if any. All records are vetted by experts. This information is from their website:

Scientists will use eButterfly data to understand how butterflies respond and adapt to environmental changes, including climate change and the effects of human land use. The mission includes both a scientific and practical dimension. The science is run from the Canadian Facility for Ecoinformatics Research at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Biology. The practical mission is to contribute to conservation of Canada’s biodiversity through engagement and advice to policymakers.

The OFNC maintains a list of initiatives in which you can participate – by going outside or from the comfort of your chair over the internet!


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