Photograph by Kristi Odom
Photograph by Kristi Odom

Stuck at home, volunteers help scientists track nature

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

Every Friday for the past 26 years, a group of (mostly) senior citizens in Northern Virginia heads outside to look for bugs: dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, and many others. It’s more than a hobby. They volunteer to record their observations and collect data that helps researchers track insect populations (which, if you haven’t heard, are in serious trouble).

They’re not alone. During the pandemic, these kinds of projects have seen a flurry of activity. Contributions to NestWatch, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that encourages people to track sightings of bird nests, for example, increased by 41 percent from the same time last year. (Pictured above, volunteer Claudia Thompson-Deahl looking for a butterfly in Reston, Virginia, in July.)

There’s a common misconception that science is done by “official” scientists—people who work at universities and have Ph.D.s and whatnot. But there’s actually a lot of published research that’s based on data collected by nature-loving volunteers. They count birds, track butterflies, and share photos of wildlife sightings, among many other things.

Data from the group in Northern Virginia, which you can see in action here, have helped researchers at Georgetown study how the silver spotted skipper butterfly reproduces and how that’s affected by human influences like pollution and climate change. (Below left, Jim Waggener tallying species observed by volunteer scientists in Virginia; below right, a blue dasher butterfly.)

Because of the pandemic, many scientists have had to cancel or postpone fieldwork, missing out on monitoring crucial breeding cycles and migration patterns, leaving holes in datasets. The contributions of ordinary people to science have perhaps never been more important. Are you intrigued? Have a little time on your hands? It’s easy to get involved. There are lots of options. Happy sciencing!

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Today in a minute

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Cheetah in the snow: “It felt surreal,” says photographer Kirsten Frost, who had spent two days tracking a radio-collared female cheetah. Frost had kept on, through the stony hills of a South African nature reserve, as a snowstorm developed. Suddenly, before him, he glimpsed the wildcat’s face through the falling flakes. A South African nonprofit says it may be only the second-known record of African cheetahs in snow, Nat Geo’s Christine Dell’Amore writes. Only about 7,000 cheetahs are left in the wild.

Tuberculosis and elephants: More than 60 captive elephants in the U.S. have developed TB since the 1990s and from 5 to 6 percent of the elephants in the nation’s zoos, sanctuaries, and circuses may have the disease, which they could transfer to humans. Yet the USDA does not require TB tests, Nat Geo’s Rachel Fobar reports. WHO figures show 1.5 million people died of tuberculosis globally in 2018.

A new home: Animal rights campaigners and celebrities have referred to Kaavan, who has spent 35 years in a rundown zoo in Pakistan, as the “world’s loneliest elephant.” Now Kaavan has been checked by medical experts and pronounced ready to travel to an animal sanctuary, likely in Cambodia, the Washington Post reports. Kaavan had lived in the cramped zoo with his partner, Saheli, until she died in 2012.

A reason to smile: Two decades ago, the Burmese roofed turtle was presumed extinct. Now, after discovering a handful of the giant Asian river turtles, known for their goofy grins, scientists have grown their population to nearly a thousand—and are releasing a few into the wilds of Myanmar. “If we didn’t intervene when we did, this turtle would have just been gone,” herpetologist Steven G. Platt told the New York Times.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Pollination: It wasn’t easy getting this image of a western tiger swallowtail butterfly collecting nectar from a blooming thistle near the rim of Colorado’s Black Canyon National Park. To capture this act of pollination, photographer Keith Ladzinski and assistant Angela Payne stalked the butterfly through a sage field for the better part of 30 minutes. They each carried a small strobe light, waiting for the butterfly to perch long enough so Ladzinski could get low, grab focus, adjust the lights, and snap a frame or two. “In the end it was a lot of fun,” he says, “minus the ant bites all over my legs and a few cactus needles!”

Subscriber exclusive: Inside the murky world of butterfly catchers

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The big takeaway

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Wallaby trouble: A common weed killer in the U.S. and Australia has interfered with the reproductive development of wallabies, researchers have found. Wallabies, born the size of jelly beans, finish developing in their mothers’ pouches, unlike many mammals that develop in placentas inside the mother. That means the wallabies are more vulnerable to external threats, such as chemical pollutants, and are likely to more clearly show effects of things like atrazine exposure, writes Corryn Wetzel for Nat Geo. The European Union banned the pesticide in 2004.

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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How many lions are there? The answer is surprisingly fuzzy, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main discovers. The range of wild lions in Africa is only about 10 percent of what it was in 1900, and experts routinely say about 20,000 are left (pictured above, six-month-old cubs relaxing in a tree). But the 20,000 estimate is “based largely on guesswork rather than science,” Nic Elliot, a lion researcher at Oxford University, tells Main. Why? They’re mainly nocturnal, sometimes hide from humans, blend in with surroundings, and have low population densities. Still, techniques relying on photographing lions and modeling populations hold promise.

Want more on big cats? Check out the last few days of Nat Geo Wild’s Big Cat Week. For ways to help, go to the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro, Gretchen Ortega, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading.