Counting living things for science

Citizen Science

A major drop in the number of insects this summer has underlined how little we know about interactions in nature, and how badly we need more information.

Unfortunately, says Peter Hall, Canada is lagging near the bottom among countries of the developed world for collecting and accessing information about organisms that live within their national boundaries.

However, he enthuses about the possibility of recruiting volunteers into what he calls « citizen science » to record information about every living thing in the country.

If the undertaking even approaches success, it will be a monumental achievement, so myriad are the life forms. For instance, only half of the insects in Canada have been identified.

Hall is executive director of Biodiversity Knowledge and Innovations Network, with an office at the federal government experimental farm in Ottawa.

Not all insects are down in number this year. Dragonflies, for instance, are up. And the numbers of song birds appear to be up as well, which indicates that there are still enough insects for them to eat.

But, over all, the situation « is quite unique, » says Bob Foottit, a research scientist and entomologist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. He has an office in the same building as Hall, only a few doors away.

The drop in insect numbers « seems to be a dramatic response to something, but we don’t know exactly what, » Foottit says. « These major fluctuations are not uncommon, but when we get an abrupt change such as this, it signals that a major parameter has been altered. » But, he says, nature is so complex and interactive that it’s almost impossible to say one thing is the cause.

Hall is a specialist in butterflies — a lepidopterist — and he has a good fix on numbers because he and two others have published a book on butterflies (The Butterflies of Canada by Ross Layberry, Peter Hall, and Donald Lafontaine, U of T Press, 1998, $29.95 in soft cover, $100 in hardcover).

Butterfly counts are done each year across the country. Individuals pick a specific spot, and on the same day each year they visit it to record what they see.

Hall is one such individual. On July 1st last year, he counted 47 species and more than 800 specimens at his spot. This year, on the same day, he counted 32 species and fewer than 500 specimens. « There’ve been worse years, » he adds. In 1993 he counted only 30 species and fewer than 100 specimens.

The « citizen science » project would have volunteers doing similar counts for every living thing: worms, beetles, ferns, spring ephemerals such as trout lilies, bluefin fish,  soil bacteria, fungi — everything. Their findings would be posted on the internet.

In addition, institutions with collections are being asked to post all their data on the internet.

To get an idea of what Hall is talking about, look at data from The Butterflies of Canada posted on the internet at www.cbif.gc.ca. Click on the « Species Bank » icon, and then on « Butterflies of Canada. » Next click on the alphabetical index of all species.

Now imagine what it would be like if this kind of information existed for all living things. The web site also contains addresses for institutions with collections.

As Hall says, « This becomes really important with climate change. We can’t model what’s going to happen with any certainty, because we don’t have the data. So we haven’t got a grip on what will happen. »

I asked him how individuals could get involved. Tell them to ask their local naturalist club what they can do, he said. It will supply a template showing what information needs to be collected. If it doesn’t know what to suggest, it can ask the Canadian Federation of Naturalists. And if it is unsure what to suggest, it can call him.

So, pick a species, pick a day, get your template, and help expand understanding of biodiversity — and in doing so, help protect it.

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