Study: Volunteer data vital to scientific research

Volunteer collection of wildlife data has proven invaluable to Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch researchers.

A recent study found no significant differences between data collected by volunteers and trained scientists, spotlighting the value of the public who are willing to learn complex scientific procedures.

“A lot of the fear of citizen science research is that the quality is not on par with professionally-trained researchers,” lead author Berlynna Heres of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) said in a press release. “This is a fair concern, but completely project and goal dependent.”

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With 1,350 miles of Florida coastline to cover, it is impossible for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (IFAS) and Florida Sea Grant staff to study all the horseshoe crab populations.

Through the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch, 833 volunteers have educated nearly 5,000 people about horseshoe crabs during beach surveys. Many volunteers write articles, give talks at local clubs, and have jobs or volunteer positions at nature centers.

“That 5,000-person impact is a very conservative estimate,” Savanna Berry, co-author of the study and regional specialized agent with UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant, said in the release. “This is much more education than just what the three founding scientists would have been able to accomplish.”

Heres said the volunteer help is vital. 

“From a researcher’s perspective, even with well-funded projects, so much scientific research is still groundwork,” Heres said. “We need data collected consistently in many locations and often at the same time. Citizen science participation makes it possible to collect data that would never be captured otherwise.”

Historical records show that members of the public have recorded observations of the natural world to support scientists for centuries. In recent years, the reliance on citizens has grown, even though some still fear the practice.

“Our study shows that with well devised training and guidance, any member of the public is capable of collecting data at a professional researcher’s level,” Heres said. “Alternatively, like with the public-reported data we collect, the researchers who devise the study understand the limitations of data and use it according to its capabilities.”

The data volunteers collect is used by FWC to conserve horseshoe crab populations, an important species for human health and the ecosystems.

“When volunteers see their data being used in real-world decision-making and in peer reviewed articles, it makes them feel like they are participating in something with a larger purpose and may make them more likely to keep volunteering,” Barry said.

People interested in becoming involved can visit the FWC’s Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch information page, select the nearest county’s drop down and contact the program coordinator.

“Hands-on, outdoor, purposeful activities can be hard to come by,” Barry said. “Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch is fun and easy to learn, does not take a huge time commitment, and is easy to plan for in advance.”

Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch is a collaboration among FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, UF/IFAS, UF Department of Biology and Florida Sea Grant.

Citizen researchers work on a Florida beach

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