On the first Monday of their winter break, two Montgomery High School students laced up their hiking shoes, grabbed their cameras and headed to Pepperwood Preserve north of Santa Rosa to do something that would make many vacationing students cringe: scientific research.
Not these two Viking students, however. They jumped at the chance to contribute to a Sonoma State University inquiry into the effects of climate change on local wildlife by helping Julie Byrne-Wittmann, a graduate student in the university’s Girman Biology Group and high school teacher, count frogs and salamanders.
“I love being out here,” senior Aaron Dueck said. He stood in the hilly, 3,200-acre preserve near the edge of a small pond and lifted a square sheet of plywood, called coverboard, to see what animals could be found beneath.
Fellow Montgomery senior Mary Young squatted down, camera in hand, and snapped a picture of a tiny reddish salamander nestled in the soil. Later, she would upload the picture to a website called iNaturalist.org, where it would be added, along with GPS coordinates, date and time, to a growing list of reptiles and amphibians found at the preserve over the past year.
By recording their observations online for scientists to use, the two students are participating in a growing movement known as “citizen science.” A type of crowdsourcing, citizen science pairs up amateur nature observers with scientists who need large amounts of information. The connection is mainly through social-media- type websites where people can record their observations and receive feedback from experts.
Young and Dueck, accompanied Monday by seventh-grader Aidan Kelly and an adult volunteer, George Jackson, were gathering data for Byrne-Wittmann’s inquiry into how reptiles and amphibians are being impacted by the changing climate.
In particular, Byrne-Wittmann wants to determine how the sensitive species are reacting to changes in rainfall and moisture levels in the ground. She hopes her findings can one day be used to inform land management decisions and show how climate change is impacting the county.
Another goal of Byrne-Wittmann’s research is to show how citizen science can be used for academic research projects.
The idea was born in 2012, when she was teaching biology at Montgomery High School. Interested in using citizen science as a way to engage students, she incorporated the concept into a spring ecology unit. All 150 of her students participated, heading out into local preserves to observe species and upload their findings to iNaturalist.org.
“They got into it,” she said, adding that her students liked the site because it provided a Facebook-like platform where they could share their discoveries with one another and people around the world. Also, they enjoyed using their smartphones to gather and upload information, she said.
The exercise proved particularly rewarding for one student who had struggled in class but loved to use his phone. One day, he photographed a striped lizard at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa and uploaded it online. Experts identified the creature as a collared lizard, normally found several hundred miles to the south in a drier, hotter climate.
The discovery sparked an online debate about whether the animal could have really extended its range so far north, perhaps driven by the changing climate, or whether it had simply been a house pet that was released.