It was 10 p.m. in Chicago when a Twitter user posted a photo of a small luminous object he’d found in his backyard. At first, Sean McConnell, a molecular geneticist and biochemist at the University of Chicago, thought it was one of his kids’ toys glowing in the grass. But on closer inspection, he realized it was a worm. He took to social media hoping someone could tell him what species it was.
Hundreds of kilometres away and an hour ahead, in Guelph, Morgan Jackson came across the Twitter image. He recognized the mystery worm instantly.
“It’s always interesting to see the stuff that people are finding in their backyard,” says Jackson, an entomologist and doctoral student at the University of Guelph, who informed McConnell that what he’d seen was a glowworm beetle larva. Jackson spends a lot of time looking at bugs on the internet. He started blogging about them in 2010, and soon after joined Twitter. He’s part field observer, part traffic cop in the world of science communicators: if Jackson can’t identify it, he’ll point to someone who can.
“If I get notifications, I’m a pretty habitual phone checker. It’s a Pavlovian response for me,” Jackson says. “I’ll check it at family reunions, over dinner, provide identifications if and when I can, when it’s socially acceptable.”
Citizen science is nothing new — birdwatchers have been voluntarily recording data for decades, helping ornithologists and climate scientists carry out their work. But now social media allows citizens to connect with scientists instantly, empowering anybody to be a backyard bug aficionado — and aiding researchers in the quest to catalogue all life.
“Everybody is carrying a microscope around in their pocket nowadays, and that microscope can automatically link them to people who can best answer questions about a discovery,” says Jackson, who’s just one of many online bug hunters. “I don’t know all the answers myself, but I’m pretty good at knowing who might have the answers.”
Jackson’s Twitter interactions have already contributed to the field — in 2015, he helped an entomologist vacationing in New Jersey identify a species of fly. They later co-authored a paper on the first sighting in the northeastern U.S. of Thambemyia borealis, a species of Japanese long-legged fly.
The drive to catalogue everything is also behind BioBlitz, a project of the Canadian Wildlife Federation aimed at creating a national inventory containing every species of flora and fauna in the country. The idea is to create a baseline showing where species are now, which will help scientists track and explain their movements in the future, especially those due to environmental pressures like global warming.
“To look at the effects of climate change you need a long-term data set,” says James Pagé, a species-at-risk biologist with CWF. “With one snapshot, you can’t say that a species is there because of a changing climate. You need some base data of what is in a given area at any point in time. This is what the BioBlitz is going to do.”
The project is a big umbrella, encompassing smaller local efforts that will contribute data to a larger body of knowledge. On June 24 and 25, for example, volunteers will gather in the GTA’s Rouge National Urban Park to catalogue species there. The information will then be recorded on the public database iNaturalist.ca, which researchers can compare against historical records to find out where species are and where they are not.
“Before we can conserve a species, we have to know where it’s found,” Pagé says. “We could look and see maybe populations we previously knew of that are smaller than we thought — but on the other hand, we could be looking at a species and start finding it in areas we didn’t know, and maybe it’s not as rare as we previously thought.”
There are an estimated 140,000 species in Canada, of which just 70,000 have been identified. Many of the mystery species remaining are insects, and much of Jackson’s academic work — which he describes as an effort to “fill out some branches on the tree of life” — as well as his pro bono Twitter trawling, is aimed at identifying them.
“There’s lots left to discover,” he says.
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