Citizen Scientists: Then and Now

A mother of five children whose passion entailed searching for fish and marine creatures in local tidepools. An outdoorsman with an 8th grade education who from an early age collected and learned about birds and mammals in the San Diego back country. An engineer who became the world’s expert on rattlesnakes. What did this disparate group of people have in common? They are all San Diego citizen scientists who played a role in the early days of the Museum.

Rosa Smith Eigenmann, Laurence Huey, and Laurence Klauber all had one thing in common: a burning interest in something about the immediate natural world that surrounded them, that fueled their desire to learn more and to make a contribution to our knowledge about local plants and animals. Their contributions in the fields of ichthyology (the study of fish), ornithology (birds), mammalogy, and herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) have given us great insights into the rich tapestry of biota that share this special geographic place called San Diego.

Rosa Smith Eigenmann (1858-1947) discovered a species of fish new to science called a blind goby while collecting in the tidepools off Point Loma. She was the first female member of the San Diego Society of Natural History and is considered the first female ichthyologist. After high school, Rosa and Kate Sessions, later to be known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” both attended business college in San Francisco for five weeks, the only female members of their class. But Rosa abandoned the study of business and began her study of ichthyology, after becoming interested in marine life and fish in particular. Although she was able to publish about 20 scientific papers in her specialty, Rosa’s responsibilities as a mother of five children, including two who were mentally handicapped, made it very difficult for her to continue her interests in science. Like many married female scientists, her professional career was much abbreviated after her marriage and motherhood.

Laurence Huey (1892-1963) received very little in the way of formal education. Born in San Diego, Huey quit school after the 8th grade. Nevertheless, from childhood he pursued his “outdoor education” as a naturalist, wandering through local chaparral, forests, and deserts, and learned more than anyone at the time about local birds and mammal species. He served as curator of birds and mammals at the Museum for nearly 40 years, and published over 200 scientific articles during his career. He collected and described many new species and subspecies from Southern California as well as Baja California.

Laurence Klauber (1883-1968) was also born in San Diego, the youngest of twelve children. Although he worked for many years for San Diego Gas & Electric, beginning as an electric sign salesman and eventually becoming president of the company, his real passion was herpetology, or the study of amphibians and reptiles. In particular, he became focused on the biology of rattlesnakes, and spent many years collecting, studying, and understanding these reptiles, culminating in the 1956 publication of his two-volume book entitled Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories and Influence on Mankind, which is still considered to be the definitive compendium of information on this group of snakes. He also donated his very large personal specimen collection to The Nat, which holds more than 43,000 herpetology specimens he personally cataloged. This includes his rattlesnake collection, containing over 8,600 specimens, and representing nearly every known species.

These individuals represent only three of the many extraordinary people who made enormous contributions to our early knowledge of the richness of Southern California and Baja California ecology and animal and plant species. None of them had received formal training in biology and yet their eagerness to learn, their unique drive and focus enabled them to become experts in their respective fields.

Today, ordinary citizens with an interest in natural history continue to make significant contributions to our current state of knowledge about our area. These include hundreds of local volunteers who have worked on our San Diego County Bird Atlas, Plant Atlas, Mammal Atlas, as well as the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California. Due to the tireless hours of work done by citizen scientists via field observations, photography, research, and assembling collections, we now have unprecedented datasets of information about our county’s biota.

And guess what? You, too, can participate and contribute. We urge you to take part in the City Nature Challenge by taking photos of wild plants and animals in San Diego County and post them to iNaturalist during the challenge, Friday, April 27 through Monday, April 30. Let your efforts benefit the legacy of knowledge being accumulated about our unique section of the world!


Posted By Director of the Research Library Margi Dykens .

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