Outstanding in the Field (Ep 2): Citizen Science—Your Data in Action
The USGS Ecosystems Mission Area brings you Outstanding in the Field, a series of stories about our science, our adventures, and our efforts to better understand our fish and wildlife and the ecosystems that support them. In this episode we’re talking about citizen science and getting the public involved in the scientific process of monitoring aquatic insects in the Colorado River near the Glen Canyon Dam. Citizen science efforts aren’t new; but, in this case, the results changed how part of a world-famous river flowed for a summer in 2018.
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Narrator: Welcome, and thanks for joining us for another episode of Outstanding in the Field, the U.S. Geological Survey’s podcast series produced by the Ecosystems Mission Area. We’ll be highlighting our fun, fascinating, sometimes batty fieldwork studying ecosystems across the country. I’m Marisa Lubeck.
Today we’re talking about citizen science, getting the public involved in the scientific process. Citizen science efforts aren’t new; but, in this case, the results changed how part of a world-famous river flowed for a summer in 2018.
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Anya Metcalfe: Citizen science is the collection of scientific data by members of the public. So, it’s usually, but not necessarily, under the supervision of professional scientists. Citizen science is important to our research group because it allows us to collect thousands of samples in a remote wilderness area.
Narrator: That’s Anya Metcalfe, an ecologist with the USGS Southwest Biological Science Center’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center .
Metcalfe: We study the aquatic foodweb in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon and we’re particularly interested in aquatic insects. It’s hard to sample aquatic insects in Grand Canyon because the river is famously large, canyon-bound, and is full of monstrous rapids. In 2012, we started collaborating with commercial and recreational river rafters to sample insects in Grand Canyon.
Narrator: The Colorado River in the American Southwest is one of the most highly managed rivers in the world. Its flows are controlled through a network of dams that store and release water. Its diversions move water to fields and cities for irrigation, industrial uses, and consumption. Anya studies the river in Grand Canyon National Park, just downstream of one of the largest dams in North America: the Glen Canyon Dam.
Metcalfe: So, the first thing the citizen scientists get is a light trap kit. Our light traps are pretty simple. It’s a small, rectangular Tupperware filled with ethanol and a UV light balanced on the edge of the Tupperware. The light attracts the aquatic insects, and the ethanol traps and preserves them.
Narrator: Juvenile life stages of these insects live in the water and look nothing like the adults. The adult stages of these insects emerge from the water and take flight to mate and lay eggs. It’s the adult stages that the light traps capture.
Metcalfe: We care about insects because they’re important parts of the foodwebs. Our native fish, many of them endangered species, need aquatic insects. Our recreationally important rainbow trout populations also need food. In addition to fish, most aquatic insects are also important food sources for birds, bats, lizards. They’re a big source of energy for the Grand Canyon foodweb.
Narrator: So, aquatic insects link foodwebs on land and in the water. They are important prey for all sorts of animal groups like the ones that Anya mentioned, including spiders and predatory beetles that string webs or actively hunt along the sides of the river.
Metcalfe: What we’ve learned in Grand Canyon is that we have very low diversity. We don’t have any mayflies, stoneflies. In addition to this low diversity, we also have low abundance of aquatic insects in the canyon. These two factors—low diversity and low abundance—affect the fish of Grand Canyon. The fish are hungry, and their limited menu of small flies means we are looking at an unstable and somewhat precarious foodweb.
Narrator: The Colorado River downstream of Glen Canyon Dam experiences daily tides called hydropeaking. Hydropeaking occurs when different amounts of water flow through the dam based on day and evening electric needs. Because aquatic insects lay their eggs at the river’s edge, they tend to dry out and die as the river levels change throughout the day.
Metcalfe: Last year, we were granted the awesome opportunity to experiment with dam released flow regimes that folks are calling “Bug Flows.” So, from May to August of 2018, Glen Canyon Dam was releasing stable flows on the weekends, when power demand is typically low, to see if aquatic insects responded to reductions in hydropeaking. We’re still working through the citizen science-collected data, but at least initially, we’re starting to see more bugs on the weekends when flows are stable compared to weekdays when insect eggs are being exposed to those fluctuations in river height.
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This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
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A special thanks goes out to Anya Metcalfe and Todd Wojtowicz from the USGS Southwest Biological Science Center, the hundreds of citizen scientists who made this project possible, and the rest of the Outstanding in the Field team: Suzanna Soileau, Hannah Hamilton, Sue Kemp, and Catherine Puckett. The teamwork that’s gone into launching Outstanding in the Field has been, well, outstanding. I’m Marisa Lubeck. Thanks for listening.
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