Community-based research
on the impact of environmental changes in
U.S. National Parks and elsewhere in North America

Mark DePoy
Buffalo National River
John Pickering
University of Georgia

Diachea leucopodia
Photograph by Alain Michaud
Diachea leucopodia (Bull.) Rostaf.
This and other slime molds are sensitive to environmental conditions. They are easily collected and studied by community-based research teams.

Updated: 2 December, 2007

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Understanding and managing the impact of invasive species, weather, fire, pollution, and other environmental changes on biological systems is a mammoth task. It is impossible to conduct randomized, replicated experiments to study the impact of droughts, heat waves, and other massive perturbations on the abundance and distribution of populations between and within ecological communities. Fortunately, because of recent advances in technology and statistics, it is now feasible to collect and integrate information from a large number of study sites, tease out the response of populations to natural events, and gain understanding into their environmental requirements and interactions.

Discover Life's research center and its partners are establishing teams of scientists, students, and volunteers to study the impact of weather and other factors on a diverse array of species. These teams will use on-line databases and a set of standard research protocols to gather and share information from a potential vast array of study sites around the globe. Here we propose to start a large-scale, long-term scientific study of U.S. National Parks and other areas in North America. In 2008, the Polistes Foundation, the 501-c-3 umbrella organization of Discover Life, anticipates being able to raise $750,000 of non-Federal support towards the proposed work. We seek a partnership with the NPS and financial match for this effort.

This proposal concerns the first year of a multi-year project. Its objectives are to develop research protocols and train the first community research teams. In 2008, we propose to field 25 research teams that will refine and test research protocols to study ants, bees, butterflies, caterpillars and their natural enemies, diseases of trees, dragonflies, dung beetles, ferns, goldenrods, ladybugs, lichens, liverworts, milkweeds, mushrooms, orchids, salamanders, slime molds, snails, vines, wildflowers and a few yet-to-be-determined groups. Each team will be associated with a host park and contain at least one professional scientist, a K-12th grade teacher, a graduate student, an undergraduate, a high school student, a retired person who has expertise in the study group, and an NPS interpreter from the park. Each team will recruit at least two members from under-represented minority groups and include another who is a native speaker of a language other than English. Thus, all teams will interact with a wide range of ages and be ethnically and culturally diverse.

During the first field season, each team will build an on-line local identification guide to their group that is specific to their park's region. Our goal is that each team test and refine its guide so that elementary school children, their parents, and other general park visitors will be able to identify species correctly after a training session that teaches them the identification characters and how to use the web. For a few groups, such as bees, it is often too difficult for non-experts to identify specimens correctly. In such cases, the team's research protocol will leave identification of difficult species to experts. Non-experts will participate in collecting, photography, mapping, rearing, preparing specimens, or other aspects of the research.

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  • Community research sites

    We will focus the study in and around national parks, because of their extensive geographic coverage, biological diversity, expertise in working with the public, and logistic support that they can offer at a continental scale. However, we will not limit the research only to national parks, because they are often too far apart to provide the geographic resolution that we need for analysis. Once we complete, test, and refine identification guides and protocols within a national park, our teams will invite other organizations and individuals, particularly schools and teachers at all levels, to extend the research to sites within the region that they will establish outside of the park. Thus, we anticipate being able to set up a network of "community research" sites that will fill in essential gaps between participating national parks.

    We anticipate that these sites will include school yards, gardens, farms, state and community parks, nature centers, field stations, university study sites,... The larger ones will use all of our research protocols to study a diverse array of species. Others may simply use one -- an individual studying the parasitoids associated with caterpillars feeding on potted tomato plants on an urban deck, for example. Large or small, they will each contribute a component to the whole body of knowledge that we need to understand how large-scale events affect complex biological systems. With standarization on methods across sites and appropriate quality control of data, they will enable us to get fine-grain information on the geographic distribution and abundance, seasonal activity, and between species interactions of diverse groups of organisms. Scientists will be able to test hypotheses that they could not address before the internet made community research possible on a global scale.

This proposal is in development below this point. Please share, but do not cite.

As they establish their network of research sites, each team will continue to check identifications and maintain data quality as it is reported via the web by participants. As part of this process, we anticipate scientists requiring specimens in most cases to be photographed and in some cases, vouchered with uniquely labeled specimens.

Once a team has establish a regional network, a process that we anticipate will take 2 - 3 years, they will extend their identification guide for use in other parks and regions. When a team's regional guides provides continental coverage for all species in their research protocol, they will have completed the development phase of their part of the project. At which point, they will focusing on adding more community research sites, collecting data, maintaining quality, and analysing and sharing results.

The website Discover Life and its partner organizations will provide the technology necessary for participants to identify specimens, process samples, report and edit findings, map and analyze results, and share information on-line in real time.

The protocols will also provide a basis for teaching scientific methods and critical thinking in schools, universities, and other venues. Combined with lesson plans, they should inspire students to be creative and develop their own ideas into independent research projects that further unravel nature's mysteries. Let's use exploration and discovery to counter the classroom tedium of the known world.

So that we can analyze trends and compare results at a continental scale, we will implement each protocol in a standard way across parks and other study sites. Each protocol will be straight forward, targeted at an age-appropriate level, and require only equipment that can be made readily available through parks, schools, universities, libraries, or other local organizations. We envision a range from simple to complex protocols that will allow everyone from grade schoolers on up to help collect the data we need. For example, "Learning lessons looking for ladybugs" is aimed at grade schoolers helping to monitor the spread and impact of non-native invasive ladybugs on rare native one. "Ant Hunt!" requires microscope skills and is more appropriate for older students.

We will expend considerable effort during the development, testing, and implementation of research protocols to assure that the data are sufficiently accurate and reliable to be of use to scientists, land managers, and policy makers. Our computer network will track the source of each datum, rank its reliability based on other evidence, and filter out or flag suspicious information. The protocols will require participants to confirm important observations by submitting digital photographs and attaching unique barcode labels, which we will provided via the web, to voucher specimens.

Because National Parks limit collecting and experiments through research permits, we will develop protocols that require minimum amounts of collecting and manipulation within National Parks. We will emphasize observation, photography, and low-impact measurements to study populations within parks. Whenever possible, we will restrict collecting and experiments to sites outside of parks and other protected areas.

In the first and second field season after funds become available for each scientific team, the team will develop and test their protocol in the Ozarks or another selected park. In the two years following the successful testing of a protocol, the team and NPS interpreters will implement it across participating parks in the Midwest and selected parks in other regions. After we incorporate feedback from these sites, we will implement the protocol throughout all parks and other sites who wish to participate. Thus, we anticipate our most successful protocols will form a national network by year-5.

The proposed network could become a foundation for the NPS's Centennial Initiative. Ultimately, we hope this model of using the web to coordinate scientists, educators, citizen scientists, and land managers will develop into a global network. If our dreams become reality, think "a million points of science" helping to better understand and manage our planet.

Rather than attempting to study all species, we will focus on critical groups of organism that will give the project the highest return. The following are potential groups that we might choose. Within these groups, we will choose subgroups that we expect to be both sensitive and insensitive to the potential threats. With butterflies, for example, we propose to compare changes in the abundance and distribution of widespread, common species, such as the Tiger Swallowtail, with rare species and locally endemic ones.

Research teams

In 2008 we propose to field 25 research teams. These teams will work on critical functional groups and species representative of a spectrum of life-history variables. Some of these teams have worked with Discover Life for years and are already well along in the process of building identification guides and developing a protocol that can be tested by commmunity researchers. The bee team has over 60 identification guides for identifying most eastern species, for example. The ant team has a national guide and protocol (Ant Hunt!) that they will further test this September with public volunteers at a "Bioblitz" in North Carolina. We can field these teams as soon as funding permits. We are in the process of recruiting and training the leaders of other teams. We should be able to field these teams by June, 2008.

The following lists the groups. Some of the following are tentative:

  • Insects
    • Ants
      -- Gary Alpert & Stephan Cover, Harvard University
      Dan Kjar, Elmira College
      Shelley Rogers, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
      Sheena Zhang, University of Georgia
      Christine Johnson, American Museum
    • Bees
      -- John Ascher & Jerry Rosen, American Museum of Natural History
      Sam Droege, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Center
      Athena Anderson, University of Georgia
      University of Kansas, University of New Mexico, USDA Bee Lab
    • Butterflies
      -- Big Sky Institute, Harvard University
    • Caterpillars
      -- Dave Wagner, University of Connecticut
      -- parasitoids -- John Pickering, University of Georgia
    • Dragonflies (and other aquatic insects?)
    • Dung beetles and allies
      -- Sasha Spector, American Museum of Natural History
      -- Mary Liz Jameson, University of Nebraska
    • Ladybugs
      -- John Losey, Cornell University
  • Vines -- with a focus on invasive species
    -- Peter Alden, Massachusetts
    -- Dov Sax, Brown University
    -- Elizabeth Sellers and Annie Simpson, USGS-NBII
    -- Les Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut
  • Land snails
    -- Gary Roesenberg, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
    -- John Slapcinsky, Florida Museum of Natural History
    -- Field Museum
  • Lichens
    -- Field Museum
  • Mushrooms
    -- Tom Bruns, University of California, Berkeley
    -- Anne Pringle, Harvard University
  • Plants
    V-plants: Field Museum, Chicago Botanic Garden, ...Arboretum...
    • Spurges -- Euphorbiaceae
      -- University of Michigan
    • Ferns
      -- George Yatskievych, Missouri Botanical Garden
      [Common Ferns of New England]
    • Goldenrods
      -- Walt Carson, University of Pittsburg
      [Common Goldenrods of New England]
    • Milkweeds
      -- Albert Meier, Western Kentucky University
    • Orchids
      -- Missouri Botanical Garden, Florida Museum of Natural History
    • Spring wildflowers
      -- Chicago Botanic Garden
      -- Missouri Botanical Garden
    • Solanaceae
      -- University of Utah
    • Tree growth and diseases
      -- Steve Hubbell, University of California, Los Angeles -- University of Tennessee
  • Slime molds
    -- Steve Stephenson, University of Arkansas

Scientific hypotheses and management questions to be addressed

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Planning meeting and documents

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