The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Tennessee Aquarium floats citizen-scientist app to extend the reach of public research

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Black Crappie in the Tennessee AquariumA black crappie is seen in the Tennessee Aquarium. Citizen scientists across the region can now plug their fish findings into a new database. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

So you want to be a citizen scientist? There’s a new app for that!

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute wants to assess the status of various fish populations throughout the Southeast so it released a new app to help outdoor folks and anglers identify the fish they spot, report the sighting, and enter their discoveries into a regional fish database.

The Freshwater Information Network (FIN) accepts and includes data for three major watersheds: The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Mobile Bay.

Tennesseans may be familiar with the two rivers, but may think of Mobile Bay as a distant place with no connection to them, but its headwaters touch Tennessee in the Conasauga River. With its geographic isolation, the Conasauga is home to species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

Our region has more species of fish than any other part of the country, and the open FIN database and application includes information on nearly half the U.S. species of fish. When hikers, boaters or anglers spot a fish, they can participate by first photographing it and then uploading the photograph to the app.

The app can help citizens themselves identify the fish, and when paired with GPS location data it becomes a part of the FIN database, which also includes museum records and interactive maps. The app also allows a user to enter their address to find their watershed and access a list of the fish that live there.

FIN Watershed Map

The Tennessee Aquarium developed this app in conjunction with iCube, the technology research center at Tennessee Technological University, FIN is one of many technological assistants to watchers of the natural world. Others include Merlin, a bird identification app from the Cornell University of Ornithology.

Smartphone or tablet apps are but one of many paths into the domain of citizen science. In her book, “Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World,” nature author Sharman Apt Russell documents her work to support scientific research, efforts which sound familiar to birders who have participated in such projects as the Christmas Bird Counts or Project Feeder Watch.

She weaves three narrative threads together into a unified picture of citizen science, beginning with her own research on the Western red-bellied tiger beetle. To this strand, she adds lyrical descriptions of her home and research area in New Mexico.

In the third narrative thread she presents descriptions of other citizen scientist opportunities such as Nature’s Notebook, which asks citizen scientists to observe the times when various species of plants come into bloom.

The ongoing phenology project at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a prime, local example of citizen science. In this program, citizen scientists make regular visits to plotted collections of trees to document their canopy development (or not) over the course of a year, and ultimately, years.

Some of the opportunities she discusses are computer-based, such as Galaxy Zoo, in which participants review telescope photos on their computer to classify distant galaxies. Efforts coordinated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology receive prominent mention.

Russell does not discuss apps and is quick to point out that citizen science is hard work. It may include hours of tabulating data and confirming results. Russell presents the material in a format accessible to general readers, who may not be as familiar with the idea of citizen science.

The author’s own experience with citizen science is through the iNaturalist app, which has an extensive database including plants, fungi, and many kinds of animals. On a recent hike of the Glenn Falls Trail near Chattanooga, I photographed several species with my phone, including a regal moth and an ebony spleenwort fern. I identified both specimens through the app, though I was already certain of the ebony spleenwort’s species and entered them into the database.

iNaturalist recorded the GPS data when I took the photographs. Experts in the system reviewed and confirmed my sightings, and the were labelled “Research Grade.” They are now part of a database which scientists can use to track the distribution, populations and times related to the appearances of these species.

If you have a hobby such as bird watching or wildflower enjoyment, you can become a citizen scientist and contribute a wealth of data to the scientific inventory documenting the ongoing occupants of, and changes to, our beautiful, highly threatened planet.

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