Crowdsourcing Insect ID

One day last week a woman came into the office carrying a cardboard box and asking if there was a biologist around.

Last time something like this happened, the box contained a baby bat, but thankfully this time it was just a mysterious insect nest… thing… on a pine branch. I’m more or less the closest thing to a biologist in our office, so I took a look. I had no idea what it was, but I was pretty sure I could find out, and I used my phone to take a couple terrible photos.


Then, I turned to the number one tool of a naturalist in need of ID help: Twitter.

Yup, I took shameless advantage of my entomology contacts on Twitter – again – and in less than forty-five minutes I had an answer. This is a nest built by the caterpillars of a pine-munching moth, and that stuff it’s made of is frass, or caterpillar poop. The next day I ran into the woman who’d brought it in and told her, and she was very interested, if a little repulsed.

Social media: it’s not just for posting photos of what you had for lunch. It’s also for posting photos of balls of caterpillar poop.


Aurora (Or Should I Say #Aurora)!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@rebeccanotbecky) ┬ámay have noticed that I get excited when the “northern lights,” also known as the aurora, are visible. Before I moved to northern tip of Wisconsin I’d only seen the phenomenon once in my entire life, one memorable night when I was a kid and the geomagnetic activity was so strong it was visible down in Ohio. Being able to see the aurora is still really novel and amazing to me, and I love that I’ve moved north just as the sun is entering an active phase and spewing out all the stuff that causes it to flare up.

Anyway, last night was particularly gorgeous – I sat by myself on the end of the dock, looking north across the pond to where green bands of light were slowly moving across the sky above a stand of pine trees. Spring peepers called all around me and Barred and Great Horned Owls hooted from the woods. It was one of those moments where I couldn’t believe that this is really my life, that I am this lucky, that I have this right outside my door. (Eventually I’m going to have to live in a town or a suburb like a normal person, and it will be a hard adjustment.)

Imagine how happy I was this evening, then, to discover a project that combines aurora-watching with two of my favorite things – citizen science and social media. A few people have put together a map of aurora visibility that is updated in real time as people report their sightings via Twitter. All you have to do is fire out a tweet in the following format: #aurora (your postal code) (rating out of 10 on visibility where you are) (any comment you want to add). For example, last night I would have tweeted #aurora 54487 8/10 gorgeous view over the pond! It works for Canadian, UK, and South African postal codes as well as American – check out the link for details, including some guidelines for assigning marks out of ten. You can contribute even if you can’t see the aurora – if there’s activity going on but you can’t see it from your location, just report 0/10. Negative data is still data.

For updates on the current level of aurora activity I recommend this site, which also posts alerts on Twitter here. Happy sky gazing!


Social Media and Environmental Education

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter but perhaps not here, the topic of my master’s degree project involves the use of social media for environmental education (I won’t bore you with too many details, but step one is going to be a survey of nature center administrators on if and how it’s used by their organizations). Recently I went to an environmental education conference and was surprised by the skeptical and even hostile reactions of some of the people there when I told them about my project – one woman literally made a face and cried “Social media? Oh, bleah!”

Apparently I need to have some sort of defense prepared.

I can understand where they’re coming from. A lot of environmental educators (very rightly!) see part of their job as getting kids away from their computer screens and outside into nature, and I think they hear the phrase “social media” and immediately think of something that’s going to cause people to spend even more time sitting in front of their computers. There’s also a perception among a lot of people, not just environmental educators, that social media is a frivolous waste of time – once when I mentioned to someone that I’m on Twitter their reaction was “Oh, so you, what, post updates about what you ate for breakfast?”

However, I would argue that social media actually has a lot of potential for environmental education – and even for getting people outside. Speaking from my own experience, I can definitely say I spend more time walking around outside in the woods and know more about natural history than I would if I didn’t blog. Blogging (and the need to come up with stuff to blog about) has pushed me to become a better photographer, to learn more about plants and insects and many other topics, and to simply spend more time outside looking at stuff. Additionally, it’s plugged me into a community of people with similar interests, something I wasn’t really expecting when I started but which has been incredibly fulfilling. Twitter too, and because Twitter is much more immediate and faster-moving than a blog it has its own unique uses – when we had that fantastic aurora a couple weeks ago, after I came in from watching it I typed “northern lights” into the search box in Twitter, and immediately had a good idea of how far south it had extended as I scrolled through tweets from Tennessee and Texas. Another time someone I follow posted a photo of a salamander they’d come across and I found myself debating with several other people from different parts of the country whether it was a tiger or spotted, all of us posting links to more photos and other resources as we tried to arrive at an ID.

And it’s not just me. Believe it or not, there is research and literature to back me up. A 2005 NEETF report on environmental literacy in America found that one of the biggest motivators for engaging in environmentally responsible behavior is feeling that you are part of a community of other people doing the same. Guess what social networks provide? And my new favorite study is one that just came out this year, analyzing how a Facebook app designed to disseminate information about climate change and provide a forum for discussing environmentally responsible behavior affected its participants (“Environmental learning in online social networks: adopting environmentally responsible behaviors,” by Robelia, Greenhow, and Burton, in the August 2011 issue of Environmental Education Research). They found that not only did participants’ level of environmental literacy increase, but their level of real-life, not-on-the-internet environmental activism and behavior increased. Unlike posting your bra color in your Facebook status (the ladies know what I’m talking about), this is not just “slacktivism”!

Every environmental educator needs to read this series of articles on social media for scientists (or, “why every scientist should tweet”), because the same principles apply. I find social media immensely useful and fun, but even those who don’t have to admit that for better or worse this is simply how people communicate now – EE has to adapt, or it risks becoming irrelevant.