The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!

The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone.                      EFM Notebook Index

Citizen Scientists: Addressing Environmental Problems with Data and Advocacy

8 Mar 2021 7:44 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
Eastwood’s Larkspur (Delphinium parryi ssp. Eastwoodiae) Alice Eastwood
During the nineteenth century, especially in Europe, many important discoveries were made by so-called “gentleman scientists,” men born into wealthy families who pursued scientific inquiry as a hobby rather than a vocation. Charles Darwin was able to sail around the world for five years and then return home to write “On the Origin of Species” and other works, all the while supported by funding from investments managed by his father.

What of the gentlewoman scientist? They are fewer in number but all the more interesting because of the societal barriers they had to overcome in order to pursue their passion for science. Let’s meet Alice Eastwood, a local hero who became one of the world’s most influential botanists.

Born in 1859 in Toronto, Eastwood lived with her working-class parents and siblings until her mother died when Alice was six. After spending years living in a convent, Alice and her sister were reunited with their father, a janitor, who had moved to Denver. Alice eventually completed high school but unlike most “gentlemen scientists” she received no post-secondary education. 

Alice Eastwood with her plant frame   

By all accounts, Eastwood was extraordinarily intelligent and outgoing. She also had the physical stamina of an athlete. After moving to Denver, she began hiking throughout the Rockies to collect plant specimens, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find and identify plants throughout the world. Eventually she moved to California where she roamed throughout the Sierras as well as up into the Cascades. She was often alone on these early trips, but as professional botanists came to know and respect her, she was frequently accompanied by collaborators.

  A. canescens, a species of manzanita identified by Eastwood
After arriving in San Francisco, she began working as a curator in the newly established California Academy of Sciences (CAS). By 1894 she had been promoted to Head of the Department of Botany, a position she held until 1949. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, as the CAS building lay in ruins, Eastwood and another employee climbed a crumbling staircase to the sixth floor where they wrapped the 1500 most important plant specimens in packets. They then lowered each packet by rope out the window to the street below, and had them taken by wagon to a safe place outside of the burning area. Under her direction, the plant collection eventually grew to over 300,000 specimens. 

Although Alice Eastwood always lived in rented rooms in San Francisco, she loved Mt Tamalpais and often spent the weekend collecting plants there. She was fascinated by manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) and called attention to at least five new species on the mountain.

It is hard to overstate Eastwood’s contribution to our understanding of plant life in Marin. Between her work and that of her successor at CAS, John Thomas Howell, we have an inventory of plants on Mt Tam that spans nearly one hundred years, a hugely valuable baseline for ongoing documentation of the changes to plant life on the mountain.

Citizen Scientists and the Sea Star

Toward the middle of the 20th century, amateur scientists like Alice Eastwood became less common as scientific research became the province of highly trained academics with substantial funding from public and private institutions. In recent years, however, the role of citizen scientists has again gained legitimacy in the natural and social sciences. How can naturalistic observation by nonprofessionals contribute to scientific knowledge these days? 

Ochre sea stars  

The most common use of citizen scientists has been to count things or measure them within the confines of a delineated plot of land or sea. Citizen scientists count Monarch butterflies in an attempt to understand their precipitous decline, for example. Equally important are the citizen scientists monitoring the massive die-off among the sea star population from Baja California up to Alaska. 

Sunflower sea stars  

The primary vehicle of this epidemic event is sea star wasting syndrome, in which the sea star literally dissolves within a matter of days. The cause of the syndrome may be related to a little understood virus; climate change and ocean acidification may also be implicated. Millions of sea stars have died since 2013, and in some places there are literally none left. 

There have been tantalizing resurgences of sea star populations in some areas, but the reason for these changes is poorly understood and no one knows whether these renewed communities will continue to flourish.

Two formerly common but now nearly extinct species of sea star are the ochre sea star and the sunflower sea star. They have a wide diet, including mussels, barnacles, snails, limpets, sea urchins, and chitons. They have few predators, although seagulls and sea otters occasionally eat them.  

A barren kelp forest overrun with urchins


This decline in the sea star population has triggered a “trophic cascade,” a domino effect when a failure at the top of the hierarchy affects species located the next level down, which in turn affect the level below them. The demise of the sea star has led to a huge increase in mussels and sea urchins which have then consumed the kelp forests that supply habitats for marine life and also help in sequestering carbon. In California, 90% of the kelp forests have been lost. It’s a catastrophe.

How can citizen scientists help? The Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) is a large consortium of research groups working with citizen scientists to collect compatible data that are entered into a centralized database. Long-Term Monitoring and Biodiversity Surveys occur throughout the year at sites ranging from Southeast Alaska to Mexico. 

One species that has been selected for annual monitoring is the ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceous). In this project, researchers train citizen volunteers in species identification, proper measurement techniques and disease category designation, and accompany them in the field to assist with site selection. This numerical data, along with photographic evidence of diseased individuals, is then combined with that from other groups to track the occurrence of wasting disease on a local and coast-wide scale. 

Go to the MARINe website to see how you can become involved!

Duxbury Reef near Bolinas with
demarcated data collection sites


Engaging Youth in Citizen Science

  Heidi Ballard

As important as it is for adults to become engaged in citizen science, it’s also crucial that kids begin learning how to address our environmental challenges. Professor Heidi Ballard at UC Davis and her colleagues at the Center for Citizen and Community Science (CCCS) have conducted a number of projects that help students engage in scientific research in their own communities.

One project sponsored by the CCCS is a long-term ecological monitoring study of milkweed plants and the monarch butterflies that rely on them. High school students participate as summer interns, measuring the plants and keeping track of the activity of monarchs that visit them.

In addition to absorbing the basic science content, the interns learn how to communicate the findings to the public and how to take responsibility for the quality of their data. They also begin to self-identify as experts (hmmm, be careful what you wish for!).

Participants in a CCCS program for middle school children

  Saba Island…Remind me to conduct my next research project there!

Participatory Action Research: Citizen Scientists as Advocates

As the environmental movement becomes increasingly aware of the disproportionate impact of climate change on low-income communities, new initiatives are underway to ensure that scientific inquiry focuses effectively on the results of racial and economic injustice. Participatory action research (PAR) is a type of citizen science that engages community members in data collection with respect to issues of pressing concern to their communities. 

Once these issues are identified, citizen scientists participate in figuring out how to collect relevant data, how to analyze it, and how to find solutions based on the research results. The role of the professional researcher is to facilitate and participate in the process.

Source: Eelderink, Vervoot, & van Laerhoven (2020)

One example may help illustrate. On a Caribbean island called Saba, a nature conservancy noted an alarming decline in the local shark population. A participatory action research project was proposed to find solutions to the disappearing shark problem based on understanding the perspectives of all the local stakeholders, including local fishing families, conservationists, and local government and church representatives. 

Initial interviews revealed something very important…there was little interest among community members in saving sharks! Given this basic mismatch between the perceptions of the nature conservancy and those of the community, finding effective solutions to the problem could prove to be difficult.


Campaign promoting the consumption
of lionfish

However, subsequent exchanges revealed that community members had serious concerns about the declining population of redfish, the main catch for local fisherfolk and divers. They attributed this decline to overfishing as well as predation by an invasive species called the lionfish. Community members were also concerned about damage to the local coral reef.

Lengthy conversations and negotiations resulted in a decision to introduce a yearly recovery period for the redfish. Funds were also obtained for the development of more effective traps for capturing lionfish. Lionfish are pretty tasty, and a local campaign was developed to encourage visitors and community members to start eating more of them. Their sale provided a source of income during the season when fishing for redfish was not permitted. 

And to top it off, the increased redfish population and reduced lionfish population has a positive effect on the shark population because…wait for it…sharks prey on redfish but not on lionfish! As the marine ecology regains its balance, the coral reef is expected to recover, providing additional ecological benefits for sharks. Win, win, win!

Calling All Citizens

Everyone can get into the act!  
There are lots of opportunities in Marin to become a citizen scientist. 

For starters, you can participate in City Nature Challenge 2021. This event got started in 2016 as a competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles to see how many different plant and animal species residents could photograph in their respective urban settings. It is now an international event, with hundreds of cities participating all around the world. This year, all volunteers will take pictures of wildlife between April 24th and 27th, and then load them into a common database to be identified in the subsequent week by experts. Check out their website to find out how to get involved. 

Have you heard of the Marin Wildlife Picture Index Project, a One Tam long-term monitoring program of mammals on Mt Tam? Millions of images have been collected through a network of motion-activated cameras on the mountain, and hundreds of volunteers have helped to identify the species captured on film. As the pandemic subsides the opportunities for citizen science will flourish, so keep an eye on their website.

Also, I recommend a book by local author Mary Ellen Hannibal called Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. In this book, she describes her participation in an astonishing number of citizen science projects around the Bay Area. And she takes you through the development of the citizen-science movement as well as her personal journey as she struggles with the sudden death of her father. Whether you want to count raptors or slosh around in tide pools, Hannibal’s book will get you going.

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook!

Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!


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