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Citizen Science at the Humber Arboretum

What plant and animal species live at the Arboretum, and which of them need protecting? When do the migratory birds arrive and leave? Are the plants blooming earlier or later than in the past?

Contributing to citizen science projects while you visit the Humber Arboretum is a fun way to both increase your own knowledge and to help us create healthy communities and thriving nature. 

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science, sometimes also called community science or crowd-sourced science, is when members of the general public contribute their efforts to advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science can take many forms. A few examples include:

  • submitting lists of birds you've seen on a walk to a central database
  • using a free app created by a researcher who wants to know when and where you've seen a specific species of plant or animal
  • tracking when an annual natural event occurs in your area, such as when a type of tree blooms each year
  • recording temperature and rainfall on your property to submit to a government agency
  • using an online platform to identify wildlife found in images from camera traps around the world
  • assisting archivists by viewing images of old documents online and transcribing the handwritten information to a digital format

Researcher-Driven Projects

In many citizen science projects, a researcher has a specific question they want answered. They devise a method to answer that question and recruit people to help them collect and/or analyze the needed data. The volunteers may only need a few simple instructions to take part, or they may need more detailed training. Sometimes a participating volunteer who has previous knowledge in the subject area, relevant skills, or who is willing to take on more in-depth training will take on a team leadership role in the project. In some cases the project is even more collaborative, and participants are involved in designing the research question or methods from the beginning.

A local example of ta researcher-driven project was The urbanredbud Project led by U of T researchers, which asked people to observe the flowering time of redbud trees to help the researchers understand the impact climate change and urbanization are having on flowering plants and their pollinators.

Ongoing Data Collection Projects

Another popular type of citizen science projects are ongoing data collection projects. These projects are based around a much broader type of question, and then the data is made available to researchers and in some cases the general public, to help answer more specific research questions as they arise.

Both iNaturalist and eBird, detailed below, are this type of project, where users continually add their observations of the natural world to a growing database, and researchers can use it to investigate migratory patters, changes in species range, and more.

 

Why Participate in Citizen Science?

"... a lot of people care passionately about the natural world and want to do something to protect it—and that's good because it needs protection, it doesn't stay protected by itself—and when we give people the opportunity to do something that is useful, and the tools to do it, I find many people are willing to step up, and we need those folks." ~ Dianne Saxe, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (2015-2019), on CBC Fresh Air, December 15, 2018

The best citizen science projects meet two objectives - creating valuable data that will have a real-world impact, and providing an opportunity for the participants to develop their own knowledge and skills.

According to the Environment Commissioner of Ontario's 2018 report 'Back to Basics Vol 3: Wildlife and Wilderness,' data gathered through citizen science programs is an important and growing part of our knowledge of biodiversity in the province: "In fact, data generated by citizen science programs accounts for over 40% of the observations of the provincially tracked species by the ministry’s Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC)" [pg 17]. Decisions relating to conservation and restoration are made based on the best information available–the more information, the better the decisions can be! 

Participating in nature-based citizen science can make you more observant, more analytical, and more aware of the natural world around you. For students of Humber College, participation can help you work toward the Humber Learning Outcomes, improving your sustainability and systems thinking mindsets, your critical thinking, and your digital fluency and communication skills. It's also a great excuse to get outside!

Citizen Science at the Humber Arboretum

Citizen science projects are incorporated into various student service learning experiences here at the Humber Arboretum, and are encouraged as a meaningful way for visitors of all ages and abilities to engage with the space.

There are two ongoing nature connection / data collection projects the Humber Arboretum actively uses and promotes:

 

iNaturalist

iNaturalist is a combination citizen science project and social media platform which allows participants to record their observations of wild organisms and take part in the identification and discussion of the observations of others.

The Humber Arboretum currently:

  • introduces iNaturalist to students participating in Learning by LeadingTM
  • offers a Co-Curricular Record experience to students who take part in the Humber Arboretum iNaturalist Challenge
  • runs an iNaturalist project, Humber Arboretum Atlas
  • encourages staff to install and use the app to help collect data about the Arboretum

 The first annual Humber Arboretum iNaturalist Challenge for Humber College and UofGH students is on now!

eBird

eBird is also an ongoing data collection project, focused solely on birds. Rather than focusing on an observation of a single organism like iNaturalist does, eBird is all about recording a larger snapshot of the bird population in a certain time and place, so users create lists of all of the species they've seen during a walk or a stationary count, and include how many of each species they've seen.

The Humber Arboretum currently:

eBirders do need to have a little knowledge of local bird species to get started; you can also download the free app Merlin to help you identify the birds you've seen.

The Phragmites Project

(Complete)

Lynn Short, Professor of Horticulture at Humber College and the Humber Arboretum's Environmental Stewardship Coordinator, spent several years developing a manual removal technique for the invasive grass phragmites (Phragmites australis australis). 

In 2018/19, she worked with the Toronto environmental charity EcoSpark, which partnered with the City of Toronto’s Community Stewardship program and the Humber Arboretum, to see how well trained citizen scientists could use the technique. The project was a success, with volunteers causing minimal disturbance to the surrounding plants while seriously impacting the future growth of phragmites. 

 

More Citizen Science Options

Along with the citizen science projects we actively promote, there are many others you can engage with while you're at the Humber Arboretum or from home.

As the name suggests, Bumble Bee Watch is exclusively interested in sightings of bumble bees. This is a researcher-driven citizen science project, where bumblebee researchers and conservationists are seeking the public's help to identify and track bumble bees across North America. This is particularly important as many bumble bee species are in danger, and your observations can help locate vulnerable populations. 

Visit the website for tips on recognizing and photographing bumblebees, then create your free account to upload sightings of your own. You are asked to attempt to identify your bee but don't worry, experts will look at your photos and correct or confirm your ID if needed.

Water Rangers is a Canadian non-profit organization that sprung out of the annual AquaHacking Competition. Now the organization offers test kits, training, and a data platform that empowers anyone to test water quality in their local lakes and rivers. By participating in Water Rangers, you can learn about water issues while potentially being on the front line of flagging problem areas.

(Water Rangers does have a test kit lending program available in Toronto, however it has been temporarily suspended during COVID-19. To get started right now, you will need to purchase your own kit from the shop.)

Some testing by various volunteers has already taken place in and around the Arboretum and by the Humber College Lakeshore campus. Explore for the latest results on the Water Rangers data map:

Humber River

Colonel Samuel Smith Park (Lakeshore Campus)

A branded Water Rangers test kit sits by the Humber River

Do you already participate in litter clean-up events? Are a you a plogger who picks up litter while you jog? Or maybe you're just one of those amazing people who stops to move trash from the grass to the bin whenever you see it? (Thank you!).

You can add another layer to you clean-up efforts by downloading the free Litterati app, photographing the litter, and uploading it to the database to record the type of litter you picked up and where you found it. Litterati also allows you to join and create teams and challenges to help you get your friends involved.

Uploaded data has already been leveraged to convince companies to move away from plastic packaging, strategically improve the placement of trash cans in a neighbourhood, and defend a city's cigarette tax. By logging into your dashboard on the website you can generate a variety of data reports, and you can also submit an open data request from the main website. 

So there are a variety of ways to use Litterati - you can contribute data casually, create your own challenge, or take the lead on analyzing submitted data to advocate for change in your own area.

Litterati is a newer project and is still developing, so expect more capabilities from the app and dashboard in the future. Visit the website to learn more and get started.

 

If you'd like to participate in citizen science from the comfort of home, or while you're standing in line somewhere, check out Zooniverse. This site, which bills itself as "people-powered research", is home to an every-changing slate of projects that require volunteers to look at data and complete tasks from home.

Fans of the Humber Arboretum may particularly enjoy trying to decipher the text on old herbarium labels, or trying to tell white-tailed deer from black-tailed deer in Calgary parks. But there are many other types of projects, and other fields beyond the natural sciences - Zooniverse has categories for the arts, literature, history, space, medicine, and more.

Spend a few hours on a deep dive, or download the app and pop in for a few minutes here and there. 

Still haven't found what you're looking for?

Head over to SciStarter, the citizen science hub that allows you to search for both online and in-person projects from around the world.