From Pond Bottoms To Mountain Tops, Citizen Scientists Document Our Environment

May 28, 2019

There’s been some unusual outdoor activity around Vermont this spring. In Chittenden County, people have been placing bowls of soapy water in fields, trying to catch bees. Elsewhere, people armed with clipboards have been counting amphibian egg masses and insect larvae in vernal pools.

But it’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s just the work of volunteer citizen scientists.

If you’ve been spending much time outside lately, you might have seen them counting macroinvertebrates in ephemeral vernal pools, or netting bees around flowering trees, or logging a bird sighting on a cellphone app. Or any number of vaguely strange-yet-official-looking activities.

Volunteer Molly Murray captured this image of a wood frog during a trip to the vernal pool she's monitoring in Montpelier.
Credit Molly Murray

These citizen scientists help gather data that environmental scientists rely on to understand our natural world and how it’s changing. Hundreds of citizen scientists in Vermont volunteer through the nonprofit Vermont Center for Ecostudies, based in the Upper Valley. And they span out across the state, documenting species from freshwater mussels to mountain-dwelling birds.

"We could never afford to gather biodiversity data on such a scale with paid biologists," explained Susan Hindinger, associate director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. "… It’s a way of gathering data over a big geographic area in a very economically efficient way." 

Hindinger says, while saving money is a big reason behind starting citizen science projects, there are additional benefits.

Volunteer citizen scientist Molly Murray holds up a spotted salamander egg mass in a vernal pool in Montpelier's Hubbard Park.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"By training citizen scientists to help us with our work, the individuals who volunteer benefit," she said. "They learn, they become even more curious. They become committed conservationists and more knowledgeable. That’s kind of the big picture about why VCE does citizen science."

Volunteers trained by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies are participating in projects in partnership with state scientists, researchers at the University of Vermont and others. Karen Bourque is Director of Communications at the center. She says you don’t have to have any special credentials to be a citizen scientist.

"These programs, people can join with absolutely no knowledge, no science background, because we provide the training and direction and inspiration," said Bourque.

There are also volunteers who come to the projects with a wealth of knowledge, like vernal pool monitor John Jose. Jose is a former member of the Montpelier Conservation Commission, and a frequent visitor to the city’s vernal pools. He and Calais resident Molly Murray are keeping tabs on a vernal pool in Montpelier’s Hubbard Park.

John Jose points out the difference between a viable and an inviable wood frog egg.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Their job includes counting egg masses laid by wood frogs, checking on their progress, and knowing when something might be wrong.

"If you look at the eggs, they have a white color to them," Jose said, during a recent visit to the pond. "That’s actually an indication that we’ve got a lot of unviable embryos that are not gonna hatch."

He continued, "Now what happened there? I don’t know. They weren’t fertilized properly. Or possibly there’s a pathogen, like a virus or a fungus or something like that, that interrupted their development and they died. Pollution’s another possibility, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect that here."

It’s also important to know what things look like when everything is on track. Pointing to an egg with a dark, oblong center he said, "So that’s what we should see a lot of, is those tiny, small, dark colored tadpoles just leaving the eggs, feeding on the algae that’s on the egg masses, and maybe even starting to spread out a little bit."

The work Jose and Murray are doing today is providing baseline data for future studies. And Susan Hindinger says that’s critically important, especially as the climate changes.

John Jose and Molly Murray keep an eye out for wood frogs and spotted salamanders on a cool spring day in Montpelier.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"You can’t evaluate how things are trending, how populations are changing, without knowing what they used to be," she said.

Hindinger says some historical data is accessible through sources such as amateur naturalists and university collections. "But," she says, "a systematic study to gather that baseline data in a kind of a statistically rigorous way, is really critically important if we want to monitor over the years."

So don’t be worried if, in your travels, you see someone conducting citizen science. The work they’re doing now could benefit Vermont for years to come. You might even thank them.