Citizen Scientists

Experts once feared the nine-spotted ladybug was going extinct. That was until Peter Priolo, a volunteer ladybug hunter, saw one on a sunflower on Long Island, New York, two years ago. Priolo was thrilled. So was the Lost Ladybug Project, which is studying North American ladybugs with an assist from ordinary people—a practice known as crowdsourcing. The nine-spotted ladybug was once so common that a fifth grader successfully lobbied for it to become the New York State insect. But introduced species, it seems, have moved in and are eating the nine-spot’s lunch. “In the future, crowdsourcing may pick up an invasive species before it’s too late to get rid of it,” says Cornell entomologist John Losey, the project’s director.

Enlisting ordinary citizens isn’t new to science. As early as the 1700s European bird surveys included reports from backyard birders. Amateur astronomers, weather-watchers, and other hobbyists have also made contributions. What’s different today is the Internet, which has helped recruit hundreds of thousands of volunteers over the past decade. Choosing from projects like the ones at right, participants may share photos or answer a researcher’s questions.

Social media are the latest way to get citizens excited about conservation. Coming soon: a Facebook app that lets people pick a whale shark to “like.” Destined for viral fame is the specimen with a damaged tail that often turns up in waters off Western Australia. Researchers call him Stumpy the Shark. —A. R. Williams

Graphics: 5W infographics; ALEXANDER STEGMAIER, NGM STAFF. SOURCES: JOHN E. LOSEY, LOST LADYBUG PROJECT; JASON HOLMBERG, ECOCEAN USA; JOYCE POOLE, ELEPHANTVOICES;
NATHAN PRESTOPNIK, CITIZEN SORT; FLICKR