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Citizen science projects make a difference for wildlife, study finds

By Meaghan Goepferich Posted on August 13, 2021

When public interest is high and funding is limited, researchers can rely on citizens to help them
measure wildlife populations, research finds. UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant scientists used the
horseshoe crab citizen science project, Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch, as a model to show that data
collected by the public is as reliable and accurate as that of researchers.

Citizen science projects make a difference for wildlife, study finds

The study found no significant differences between data collected by volunteers and data collected by
trained scientists. The program also spotlights the value of skilled volunteers who are willing and
able to learn complex scientific procedures.

With 1,350 miles of Florida coastline to cover, it is virtually impossible to study Florida horseshoe
crab populations without the help of volunteers. Through Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch, 833
volunteers have educated nearly 5,000 people about horseshoe crabs during beach surveys alone.
Many of the volunteers also write articles, give talks at local clubs, have jobs or volunteer positions at
nature centers, and generally chat people up about horseshoe crabs.

“That 5,000-person impact is a very conservative estimate,” said Savanna Barry, co-author of the
study and regional specialized agent with UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant. “This is much more
education than what just the three founding scientists would have been able to accomplish.”

Highlights

– A recent study finds that data collected by citizen scientists is as accurate as data
collected by researchers.
– The findings further support the value of citizen science programs in connecting
communities with their local environments and enhancing research.
– Without projects like the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch program, Florida wildlife
organizations would not have the information on horseshoe crab populations that they
do today.

“From a researcher’s perspective, even with well-funded projects, so much of scientific research is
still groundwork,” said Berlynna Heres, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission researcher and lead
author of the study. “We need data collected consistently in many locations and often at the same
time. Citizen science participation makes it possible to collect data that would never be captured
otherwise.”

Historical records show that members of the public have recorded observations of the natural world
to support scientists for centuries. In recent years, the reliance on citizen science has grown but some
still fear the practice.

“A lot of the fear of citizen science research is that the quality is not on par with professionally
trained researchers,” said Heres. “This is a fair concern, but completely project and goal dependent.
Our study shows that with well devised training and guidance, any member of the public is capable of
collecting data at a professional researcher’s level. Alternatively, like with the public report data we
collect, the researchers who devise the study understand the limitations of data and use it according to
its capabilities.”

The research compared data reported by anyone in the public that notices a horseshoe crab at the
beach to data collected by trained citizen scientists volunteering under the Florida Horseshoe Crab
Watch program. While both programs involve members of the public, the Florida Horseshoe Crab
Watch program includes extensive training in the biology of the animals and the collection and
reporting of data.

“This paper shows that the data volunteers collect are high quality and paves the way for more
findings based on their data to be published in the scientific literature,” said Barry.
Data reported by the public helps steer the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch program. For example,
areas of heavily reported spawning activity determined sites for citizen science data collection.
In the case of Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch and the public spawning reporting, the public can
directly participate in research that influences management decisions. The data that volunteers collect
is actively used by FWC to conserve horseshoe crab populations, an important species for human
health and the ecosystems in which they live.

“When volunteers see their data being used in real-world decision-making and in peer reviewed
articles, it makes them feel like they are participating in something with a larger purpose and may
make them more likely to keep volunteering,” Barry said.
The benefits of citizen science programs transcend the program and volunteers. Volunteers do more
than collect and compile data; they help organizations understand how the public view their local
ecosystems and wildlife.

“Not all volunteers come with fisheries or wildlife research backgrounds and have unique
perspectives and ideas that help improve the program in return,” said Heres. “We get so much from
working with the public, and we hope that those who volunteer with the program feel the same and
know they are making a difference.”

Those interested in becoming involved can visit FWC’s Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch information
page, select the nearest county’s drop down and contact the program coordinator for more
information.

“Hands-on, outdoor, purposeful activities can be hard to come by,” Barry said. “Florida Horseshoe
Crab Watch is fun and easy to learn, does not take a huge time commitment and is easy to plan for in
advance. Many people tell me that they wanted to be a marine biologist but life got in the way of their
plans, or perhaps they are an aspiring marine or wildlife biologist. Either way, this program is a great
way to get experience being a marine scientist, even if just for a few days a year.”
Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch is a collaboration among FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute,
UF/IFAS, UF Department of Biology and Florida Sea Grant.

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)
is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that
knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen
research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

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