I have been fascinated by animals ever since I was young. I never miss a squirrel running past my window or a bird chirping in the sky. Some of my favorite interactions with the natural world have occurred when noticing plant and insect species within urban spaces.
While recently strolling through downtown Des Moines, Iowa, for example, I happened upon a patch of bright purple wildflowers. These vibrant stalks were surrounded by various grass species, and as I gazed upon the wildflowers, I noticed several bumblebees nestled within the petals. When my attention moved towards the grasses, I watched grasshoppers spring from one blade to another. Once I was ready to continue on, I snapped a photo to identify the purple flowers: blazing star. With a little more exploration, I learned that blazing star was native to the state of Iowa, providing important resources for other species like the bumblebee. It never ceases to amaze me just how much we can notice when taking a closer look at the wild spaces around us. Even a simple patch of grass has a story to tell!
An invitation: take a break from what you are doing and walk outside. Look at and listen to the world around you. The harder you look, the more wildlife you will notice. Most of these species have interesting stories, and scientists want to explore those narratives. Especially with so many species facing threats in their wild habitats, including our own backyards, these stories are quite important.
Environmental topics can often feel distant, especially for those living in urban settings. For areas where greenery is scarce, it can feel difficult to connect with nature. We hear about the correlation between urbanization and species decline, but how can we be a part of the solution? As it turns out, there are endless opportunities to participate in efforts to save species around the world. Conservation is truly at our fingertips in the form of community science.
Community science, also known as citizen science, is the act of participating in research projects no matter your professional or academic background. These types of programs take many different forms and cover a plethora of topics, such as the animal kingdom, plants, space, and weather. They are put in place to collect data on a specific topic or region to help scientists better understand and monitor these areas. No matter where your interests lie, there is a community science opportunity for you! A large number of these projects focus on the species around us, giving us a unique window into our surroundings.
Community science also allows for the collection of much larger datasets than what would be possible with just a team of researchers, as there are so many species in a vast number of places. With volunteers around the world to take pictures, identify species, and tag locations, everyone can have a hand in monitoring and protecting the species in our communities.
Evidence shows that we are all more connected when we go outside and interact with our natural surroundings. I have had the opportunity to grow up in a suburban town that takes pride in its trees and natural areas. Even though I have been immersed in this setting my whole life, I have never felt more connected to my local species than when I began utilizing community science apps to monitor and map those plants and animals living around me. Specifically, I have become much more aware of the insects in my own backyard and have been quite enthralled with their diverse colors and sizes. These opportunities have encouraged me to look around and investigate, noticing much more about the natural world. They have also sparked the curiosity of finding even more species and learning their stories. By connecting ourselves with these conservation efforts, we are able to better understand the needs of those with which we share a habitat.
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No matter where you are, nature is right there with you. The birds chirping outside of your window, the spider crawling on the fence post, and the plants growing in your community space are all of interest to scientists. Community science projects take various forms, but a recent surge of smartphone application-based opportunities allow for many people to take part in data collection. This makes it really easy to be a community scientist. Wherever you may be, there is a community science project waiting for your participation. Here are some platforms to help jumpstart your exploration:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Do you have an interest in our feathered friends? Check out the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, whose mission is to monitor and conserve bird species around the world. Cornell offers the ability to participate in five different community science projects, ranging from the monitoring of nests to a weekend of sighting as many birds as you can. Help Cornell to Celebrate Urban Birds and get involved with their bird conservation efforts!
iNaturalist. Imagine walking outside, taking a photo of an eye-catching flower or insect, and immediately receiving information about the species. iNaturalist does exactly that by creating a database of global observations to share with the public as well as biodiversity researchers. Each entry is placed on a map so that scientists can monitor where certain species are located, allowing for exciting identifications. The great part about iNaturalist is that it can be accessed on your mobile device. When I find an interesting creature in my backyard, such as the red-banded leafhopper pictured below, I immediately take a photo and upload it to the database. It is a great way to learn about the species sharing your habitat.
Zooniverse. Are you unsure of what kind of community science project would match your interests? Head over to Zooniverse and explore the many different projects offered. This collection of community science efforts greatly aids scientists from all over the world in identifying species through photos and other media. There are even projects revolving around other topics that may interest you, such as astronomy, history, and medicine!
Not only can community science be found in your smartphone, but you can also find opportunities at your local zoo or aquarium. Organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are dedicated to the conservation of species, which is often supported by scientific research. These types of projects create great partnerships between zoological institutions and the community. It is also an impactful and interactive way to connect visitors and surrounding community members with the conservation missions of these organizations. If you have an interest in the outdoors and the species that inhabit natural spaces close to you, the odds are high that your local, accredited zoological organization shares those same interests. Here are some projects to explore on your next visit:
Nationwide − FrogWatch USA. Have you ever heard loud buzzing or croaking noises coming from your local pond or wetland area? Odds are that was a frog! Join AZA-accredited zoological institutions around the United States to identify the frog species living near you. Amphibians face many threats in the wild such as pollution and habitat loss. FrogWatch aims to identify what species occupy the areas around us in order to monitor their population patterns. Reach out to your local accredited institution to see how you can get involved.
Regional − Additional Projects. While FrogWatch is a nationwide project with participation from multiple facilities, there are other site-specific programs to meet your interests. Chicago residents can help the Lincoln Park Zoo monitor wildlife in the Windy City, while those in cities along the West Coast can join the California Academy of Sciences in mapping intertidal species to monitor biodiversity. If you live in Colorado and enjoy invertebrates, you can help the Butterfly Pavilion restore urban and suburban land to create important habits for butterflies and other pollinators. On your next visit, check out what community science projects are supported by your local zoo or aquarium! You can also visit the AZA website to find a list of regional projects that may interest you.
There are many community science projects that enable people with various interests and levels of experience (including none at all!) to be part of the effort to conserve species. Please feel free to list others in the comments that have been important to your own explorations!
 C.D. Rosa and S. Collado, “Experiences in Nature and Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors: Setting the Ground for Future Research,” Frontiers in Psychology 10, no. 763 (2019): 1-9, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00763.