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Citizen scientists help local wildlife and communities

Funding and manpower are the most common limiting factors in conducting research. These factors are especially limiting for wildlife and fisheries research projects, which cover vast geographic areas, involve secretive animals and generate large quantities of information.

To combat these challenges, scientists have reached out to everyday citizens interested in science, the natural world and giving back to their communities. These volunteers receive specialized training for the particular research task at hand. In some cases, volunteers are identified for a skill they may already possess, such as bird identification, and recruited to assist on the project. The volunteers and natural resource professionals then work as a team to implement the project.

Mississippi State University experts and Master Naturalist volunteers evaluate the fish population of a farm pond using a seine net survey. (Photo by Adam Rohnke)

Mississippi State University experts and Master Naturalist volunteers evaluate the fish population of a farm pond using a seine net survey. (Photo by Adam Rohnke)

Citizen scientists contribute to science in many ways, such as collecting data, assisting in the field and leading education programs.

A great example is the Christmas Bird Count run by the National Audubon Society. For more than 100 years, citizen birdwatchers have assembled in groups all across the country on a day in December to count all birds seen in a given area. The results are then compiled and submitted to a centralized database for bird researchers to analyze for population trends and other bird-related research questions.

This type of citizen-science monitoring project enhances scientists’ ability to keep tabs on wildlife populations and saves taxpayers money. Meanwhile, the volunteers learn new skills, have fun outside and contribute to conserving wildlife and fish in their communities.

A more in-depth citizen-science opportunity available to Mississippians is the Mississippi Master Naturalist Program. This adult volunteer certification program trains participants in various locations around the state one day a week for nine weeks. Participants learn about Mississippi’s natural environment, including ecology, mammals, fish, birds, plants and insects.

Training takes place in the classroom, laboratory and field. Field trips include visits to Mississippi’s popular habitats, such as the Mississippi River, coastal estuaries, piney woods and bottomland forests. Students learn field identification and sampling techniques, and experience Mississippi’s wild places firsthand.

After the nine-week course, participants donate a minimum of 40 hours of citizen-science volunteerism in their communities over the next year to fulfill the final requirement of becoming a Certified Master Naturalist.

Past attendees have participated in bird and amphibian monitoring programs, analyzed museum records and specimens, assisted conservation organizations with wildlife habitat projects, conducted education activities and lead management projects, such as nature trail repair and maintenance on public lands.

Becoming a Certified Master Naturalist or citizen-science volunteer can be very rewarding. It is also crucial to conserving Mississippi’s fish and wildlife for future generations to enjoy.

— By Adam Rohnke

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