San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[BRCC San Diego Natural History Museum: Research Library]


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Field Guide


Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

(l-r): Former Herpetology Collection Manager J. Angelo Soto-Centeno;
Volunteer and Citizen Scientist Dick Schwenkmeyer;
and Dr. Bradford Hollingsworth, Curator of Herpetology in the Museum’s Wet Collections Facility.
Photo: Bob Ross

Citizen Science

By Jessica Holmes Chatigny

“Citizen scientist” is the new turn of phrase ascribed to volunteers, with or without scientific backgrounds, who contribute to scientific research. This differs from general volunteerism in that these people produce tangible, relevant, and important research. While the term may be new, researchers at the San Diego Natural History Museum have participated in citizen science for 133 years.

Dr. Thomas Deméré, Curator of Paleontology and Director of PaleoServices, explains, “As a natural history museum, we serve a unique, two-way purpose. We distill knowledge and information from the academic world for the public through exhibitions, classes, lectures, and books. On the other hand, we invite members of the public to engage in real research, which feeds back into academia.”

Two of the Museum’s long-time citizen scientists are Carole Hertz and Barbara Myers. The “Shell Ladies” have volunteered in Marine Invertebrates for 34 and 31 years respectively. Their love of San Diego’s coastline drew Carol from her classroom and Barbara from her paralegal office to research at the Museum. They have co-authored scientific papers describing at least 35 new species between the two of them.

Provost and Director of BRCC Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra was brought into the ecological fold his first year at university by a soil specialist and professor. This professor invited Dr. Ezcurra to assist him in the soil study lab—this invitation led to cleaning test tubes at first, then managing the greenhouse and herbarium, then co-authoring a paper during Dr. Ezcurra’s second year.

“To know that you have contributed to the ever-evolving body of scientific knowledge is incredibly empowering,” says Dr. Ezcurra. “That experience may be why I am a scientist today.” Some of the Museum’s more prominent citizen science research projects are the atlases. The atlases divide San Diego County by a grid, and volunteers are trained to collect, observe, and document life in their area.

The San Diego County Bird Atlas was published in 2005. It addresses all the county’s birds — wintering birds, migrants, and exotics as well as breeding birds. The Atlas, spearheaded by Curator Philip Unitt, is based on data collected by Unitt and over 400 volunteers who devoted some 55,000 hours to observation and record keeping. The data collection would never have been possible without this active group of citizen scientists. Each one is credited in the San Diego County Bird Atlas.

The Museum’s Botany Department staff has trained over 550 “parabotanists” for the San Diego County Plant Atlas project. While the Bird Atlas was an enormous effort (there are approximately 500 species of birds in San Diego County), the Plant Atlas exceeds it (there are 2400 plant taxa, 600 non-native weeds alone!).

Volunteer Mary Ann Brooks-Gonyer’s collection area is north of Escondido. After six months of training and practice, she could identify 70% of the hundreds of specimens she collected. She says, “Volunteering with the Plant Atlas is a win-win: I win because I’m learning, and the Museum wins because they are furthering their collections and research.” Brooks-Gonyer’s contributions to the herbarium will serve the botanists of the next century, right alongside the specimens collected in the 1800s.

“We are undertaking incredibly important research,” says Curator of Botany Dr. Jon Rebman. “Right now, if someone asked ‘What areas in San Diego County are the richest in biodiversity?’ no one The contents of these pages are provided to Natural History by the San Diego Natural History Museum. would have an answer to that critical question. We need to know the basic, fundamental information in order to be able to evaluate change due to climate, habitat destruction, and more.”

Dick Schwenkmeyer got involved with the Museum when he was in his early teens—he was a member of “The Specialists Club,” created by Charles “Harbie” Harbison (the Curator of Entomology at the time) for a group of high school students interested in science. Schwenkmeyer later taught Museum classes and continues to lead trips into Baja California for the Museum.

Says Schwenkmeyer, “I developed interest in science because of my curiosity about things that I observed while roaming local canyons as a kid, and by attending classes at the San Diego Natural History Museum under the tutelage of Harbie.”

Schwenkmeyer shared this love of San Diego’s natural world with high school and college students in 22 years of teaching. He continues to volunteer for Dr. Bradford Hollingsworth, Curator of Herpetology.

As voracious enthusiasts for life, eager to share that enthusiasm, perhaps biologists are predisposed to accept and benefit from citizen science. In so doing, they enable ordinary citizens in our community to enrich their personal scientific knowledge while becoming active and committed stakeholders in local conservation issues.

Plant Atlas field training
Photo by Jeannie Gregory