Citizen Scientists

20160414_0788_UNRClaunch_MDThe Natural History Museum (NHM) is turning all of urban Los Angeles into a field site for wildlife research – with residents pitching in as “citizen scientists.”

From its newly-launched Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC), the museum is conducting the largest urban biodiversity study in the world, dubbed SuperProject. The objective is to extend scientific research and investigation beyond its Exposition Park location and, with the help of local residents, inventory the myriad species of animals and insects that live throughout Los Angeles.

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Supervisor Ridley-Thomas as citizen scientist, examining specimens in their urban habitat at NHM

Mark Ridley-Thomas lauded the museum’s efforts to engage the community in its groundbreaking research. “This urban biodiversity research is a new frontier for all of us, and I look forward to children, teachers, and librarians across Los Angeles County joining the museum’s army of citizen scientists,” he said.

Hundreds of citizen scientists have been trained to collect data and submit it to the museum’s scientists via iNaturalist, a free app for reporting personal observations of any plant or animal species. Already, UNRC’s SuperProject has led to many exciting discoveries about the regional environment.

“There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world,” NHM Curator of Entomology and UNRC Co-Director Dr. Brian Brown said. “At NHM, we’re committed to learning more about the extraordinary plants and animals around us, and to making L.A. a better place for wildlife — and, by extension, humans —to thrive.”

The biggest challenge to studying urban biodiversity is that a significant portion of the habitat exists in backyards and other areas inaccessible to scientists for research. “We are excited to partner with volunteers across the region to establish citizen science as one of today’s foremost scientific research methods,” said Dr. Greg Pauly, Associate Curator of Herpetology at NHM and UNRC Co-Director.

2MZ_4348At the launch of UNRC, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas presented NHM President and Director Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga with a scroll declaring April 16 as Citizen Science Day, and she talked about envisioning the museum as “a hub for the investigation of urban nature, shaped not only by scientists and experts, but by user, visitor and educator interests.”

“It’s a new approach to science: using the expansive and diverse Los Angeles landscape as a field site to look at things in a less compartmentalized way, and conducting research in the urban matrix — with the help of the public,” Dr. Bettison-Varga said.

With human populations worldwide increasingly concentrated in cities, urban biodiversity is quickly becoming a central part of the future of plants and wildlife on Earth. However, much of it remains a mystery. NHM Research and Collections Vice President Dr. Luis Chiappe hopes that by analyzing historical data and gathering new data through the SuperProject, NHM can become “a major think tank for urban issues relating to climate change, pollution, urban habitats, and ecological resource management.”