Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wild Kingdom and citizen science

When I was a kid, I was captivated by the TV show Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the host and narrator, but much of the work tracking, capturing and studying the animals seemed to be done by a guy named Jim. I was so captivated, in fact, that my grandparents, who probably didn't have two nickels to rub together, bought me the complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, which I read from aardvark to zebra. Other kids wanted to be doctors or fire fighters when they grew up, but I wanted to be a zoologist. As it turned out, my younger brother, who wanted to be a police officer, actually ended up studying zoology; I changed aspirations in grade 5 when Mr. Johnston had us draw detailed maps of the world.

In any event, thoughts of Wild Kingdom faded until 1995, when I visited the Serengeti. The sound of the savannah - the snorting, grunting, bellowing of the herd animals, the spraying and splashing of the hippos in the Mara River - brought back memories of my favourite episodes. If only my safari guide had been Jim, and not a German botanist named Wolfgang, my childhood dream would have been realized. If I had only arrived a week earlier, I would have shared a camp with David Suzuki, who was also there for a holiday with his family.

In hindsight, having stood and admired the animals on the Serengeti was not much far removed from watching them on TV. I hadn't really been like Jim from Wild Kingdom; he did things to help wildlife, while I simply looked at wildlife. Had my childhood dream really been to merely observe wild things? I don't think so.

Recently I've been given a chance to do more than watch. Two weeks ago I found myself at the National Wildlife Research Centre in Ottawa, meeting with Environment Canada (EC) staff and representatives of Nature Canada (NC) about how to advance and rejuvenate citizen science in Canada. EC and NC together operate a number of Nature Watch programs, whereby anyone can become an amateur science by entering observations of frogs, plants, worms and lake ice conditions in Canada. The aggregated data can be analyzed for trends in species distribution and climatic conditions. My colleague Andre Viau and I are hoping to lend our skills, experience & resources at UO to shore up their existing programs and eventually expand them. The citizen scientist is an old idea, one that has enormous popularity in Europe, with tens of thousands of citizen-led environmental monitoring programs going on there right now. In North America, especially in Canada, participation has waned. Maybe we've been watching too much of the wild kingdom on TV, and not spent enough time getting our boots dirty. With the rapid global and regional environmental changes presently taking place, we need as many eyes as we can get on real wildlife, we can no longer rely solely on professional scientists like good old Jim.

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