Subscribe and save!
magazine / jun10

June 2010 issue

Page:  1 2 3

Biodiversity: Environmental Scientist of the Year

Here Comes Everybody   (Page 1 of 3)

From studying slugs to searching for swans and monitoring pine martens, citizen scientists keep watch over our changing world. Meet Canadian Geographic’s Environmental Scientists of the Year.

By Carlyn Zwarenstein with illustrations by John W. Stewart
The real beauty of citizen science may be that it gets us back to our roots — science as the outcome of a natural, unquenchable curiosity.The real beauty of citizen science may be that it gets us back to our roots - science as the outcome of a natural, unquenchable curiosity.
Photo: Ben Nelms
Photo essay Follow citizen scientist Aleta Karstad in her home laboratory.

Click to view photo essay
Multimedia Discover videos, interactive features and photos on the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
View now
  • What is Biodiversity?

    The word invokes the splendour of our world. In 2010 we celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity, yet many living things are in imminent danger of going extinct. Read more »
  • Clayoquot Sound

    Biosphere Reserves such as Clayoquot Sound aim to prove that rich natural environments go hand-in-hand with vibrant economies. Read more »
  • Citizen Science

    From studying slugs to searching for swans and monitoring pine martens, citizen scientists keep watch over our changing world. Read more »
  • 50 Million Trees

    Ontario has an ambitious plan to reforest the most populated part of Canada. But first it must grapple with landowners and fragmented landscapes. Read more »
  • Goodbye Tallgrass Prairie

    Once covering 6,000 square kilometres in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, the tallgrass prairie has all but vanished from the Canadian landscape.
    Read more »
  • Invasive Species

    Are “invasive” species hitching rides to new habitats all that bad for our ecosystems?
    Read more »
  • Freegan Living

    Gerard Daechsel lives as a freegan, an anti-consumerist who forages necessities from what others throw away.
    Read more »
  • The Jordan Basin

    Six years ago, an ecologically rich wedge of ocean in the northern Gulf of Maine became Canada’s first marine biodiversity showcase. Has it lived up to its promise? Read more »
  • Multimedia

    Discover videos, interactive features and photo essays mapping the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
    View now »

Dressed in a flannel nightgown, Aleta Karstad walks from her bedroom to her living room/gallery/laboratory to drown the last of the giant slugs. Ten centimetres long when fully extended, this Arion is mostly orange, with black ommatophores (eye-stalks) and a red-striped fringe at the edge of its foot. It has laid nine eggs over the past three days; this morning, Karstad spots another. So instead of the planned execution, a birth.

Follow citizen scientist Aleta Karstad in her home laboratory.
(Photo: Ben Nelms)

With the sensitive hands of an artist, Karstad lays the slug on a sheet of Plexiglas to take photos and measurements. She shoots video and sketches as 18 eggs pearl slowly out of the hermaphroditic creature’s motionless body. Finished its labours at last, the slug pokes its ommatophores out from its orange mantle and appears to take a look at its progeny. The next day, it stretches itself out to die, and Karstad promptly preserves it in ethanol.

Coming from all walks of life, citizen scientists bring unprecedented diversity to the pursuit of knowledge.

Slugs are a subject of serious interest for exactly our people in this vast, slug-filled country — all of them amateur slug experts. One is an Ontario botanist and herpetologist. The others are a Quebec homemaker who used to conduct clam research, a British Columbia graphic designer and Karstad, who lives in an apartment above a general store that she and her husband transformed into a natural history centre in Bishops Mills, Ont., about 65 kilometres south of Ottawa.

When a Toronto resident stumbled upon a couple of unusual pumpkin-orange slugs on the sidewalk last fall, she hit the internet to try to identify them and got in touch with Karstad. A month later, after neighbours supplied more of the mysterious slugs, the woman’s parents drove a dozen Arions to Karstad’s makeshift lab, which is crammed with second-hand microscopes, bottles of preserving alcohol and parts of Canada’s fourth largest collection of freshwater clams, all surrounded by dozens of anatomically perfect paintings of trees, birds, rocks, insects, flowers and fungi.


Stooped slightly forward from years bent over microscopes and easels, Karstad tells me that the field of malacology — the study of molluscs such as slugs and snails — is wide open for amateurs to make a genuine contribution. Her active interest in slugs, an attachment she likens to “falling in love,” is the zenith of a long trajectory toward an ever greater commitment to natural history. The daughter of a biologist (her father studied wildlife diseases) and the wife of another (Fred Schueler examined geographic variation in leopard frogs for his doctorate), the 57-year-old has no formal scientific training (though she has taken an entomology course and corresponds with a Swiss slug expert). She pays her bills by creating watercolour, pen-and-ink and oil illustrations for clients such as museums and nature organizations. Yet she dissects, preserves, measures and classifies with academic rigour. “As I grew to know biologists,” says Karstad, “I was taught that anything I observed could be significant and worth noting.”

Karstad is one of the thousands of amateur, or citizen,to pay people to go out and get all this data, it would be a very expensive proposition. Now, finally, we are able to vector the resources of the greater community to solve issues that have always existed.” Armed with more affordable tools and technologies, as well as an enhanced ability to communicate, thanks to the internet and cheap long distance, citizen scientists are better equipped than ever. Bolstered by links to organizations such as the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN), they’ve convinced professionals that amateurs are not only tolerable but indispensable. Moreover, citizen science dovetails with a number of bona fide trends. Beyond local empowerment and community management of natural resources, it meshes with the popularity of do-it-yourself projects as well as the mounting psychological evidence that people have an intrinsic need to connect with nature. The real beauty of citizen science may be that it gets us back to our roots — science as the outcome of a natural, unquenchable curiosity. Young or old, educated or illiterate, anyone can pay attention. Coming from all walks of life, citizen scientists bring unprecedented diversity to the pursuit of knowledge.Galen Malthouse, 11, stands in his rubber boots and rain jacket, binoculars and notebook in hand, on the boardwalk overlooking Morrison Marsh on Denman Island, off the coast of British Columbia. He looks out over clumps of grass and open water. At first, it is still, but then, he says, “it sounds like a brass band at the other end of the marsh.” Malthouse has spotted some of the trumpeter swans he’s been monitoring for the past two years, with help from an adult mentor who drives him to viewing sites. Malthouse records his weekly counts and his mentor sends them to a local naturalist society and then to the Canadian Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited, which use the data for the management of Canada’s recently reinvigorated trumpeter swan population — a turnaround that Malthouse has helped document. On the other side of the country, an ongoing project taps into Nova Scotia’s long tradition of kid scientists. From 1900 to 1923, the province’s superintendent of education, Alexander MacKay, organized schoolchildren to collect data relating to roughly 200 phenological measures, cyclic and seasonal phenomena, such as the arrival of spring’s first robin or autumn’s first frost. The records they kept survived and constitute the world’s largest database of its kind, an important benchmark for assessing climate change, says Christopher Majka, who coordinates the MacKay-inspired scientists throughout Canada who gauge rainfall, band birds, tag butterflies and take air samples, relying on the same notebooks, binoculars, hip waders, microscopes and keen eyes used by paid professionals. It’s impossible to count their numbers, because many, like Karstad, don’t operate under an institutional umbrella. Their contribution is so valuable, however, that on its website, Environment Canada says, “Volunteers act as the department’s eyes and ears,” acknowledging the thousands of Canadians who work on its programs.

Indeed, with nearly 10 million square kilometres of terrain in Canada, 7.1 million square kilometres of ocean territory and some 140,000 species living therein, not to mention remarkably varied ecosystems, there’s no way governments, universities and private companies could deploy the armies of researchers needed to monitor, say, the number of belugas returning to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and how many salamanders awaken from their winter hibernation in northern British Columbia and the amount of rainfall in the Yukon. Yet all of this, and much more, needs to be recorded so that we can discover what’s out there and, perhaps most important, how it’s changing.

Amid shifting weather patterns, altered migration routes and ranges, an onslaught of invasive species and concerns about water and soil quality, it’s critical to keep a close eye on the natural world. So volunteers step up to fill the gaps between the efforts of institutions large and small. For these reasons, Karstad and thousands of her fellow foot soldiers — and maybe you— are Canadian Geographic’s Environmental Scientists of the Year for 2010.

Continued on Page 2 »

Page:  1 2 3

Related content and resources:
Photo Club
View a gallery of Eamon Mac Mahon’s photos of Canada’s forests and read a one-on-one interview with the photographer.
The International Year of Biodiversity
Learn more about the International Year of Biodiversity and what you can do to contribute to this U.N. initiative.
50 Million Trees
Get involved in your community with Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program. Donate or organize your own plant, because every tree counts.
Return to the Wild
Explore and learn more about the diversity of Canada’s wildlife in the Return to the Wild project.

Search our sites: ,

Comments on this articleView all comments (13) | Leave a comment

Teachers and environmental outreach coordinators can run their own Citizen Science project using free online tools at

Submitted by Paul on Friday, March 25, 2016

Citizen scientist can submit wildlife and plant sightings into community database at 'Wildlife & Plant Sightings'

Sightings data are organized into basic reports and easily searchable.

Amateur to professional can contrinute their citizen science here.

Submitted by Paul Lindgreen on Monday, January 24, 2011

This story requires the eyes of an ornithologist on the water counting birds. Birds as indicators tell us about the world below. Having just returned from the Jordan Basin region I can attest to the rich Biodiversity that I saw as I counted birds. Dovekie, N. Fulmar, Greater Shearwater..... This Bioregion is important to both the United States and Canada. It behooves all of us to work together diligently to understand this region of the Ocean. Remember also that it is our RIVER Ecosystems connected to the Gulf of Maine that ultimately determine the biodiversity of the GOM.
Pollution in the GOM is a death sentence. Dioxins and mercury must be removed from the Penobscot River and all streams and culverts must be reconnected to the SEA-RUN FISH.. These are the Keystone Species of the GOM and determine the Health of both the United States and Canadian people.

Submitted by Michael J. Good, MS on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good article, but most professional foresters will recongnize that most of the photos do not depict an old growth forests, but a variety of second growth or fire-origin sites.

Submitted by collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

With respect to the statistics Candace quotes from the Int'l Union for Conservation of Nature Red List Is it 12% of all birds or 12% of all species of birds. Quite a different number I would think.

Submitted by Collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

The excellent article by Fraser Los entitled “50 million trees” is welcome. While the article focuses on Ontario Government plans to reforest Southern Ontario the author also mentions efforts being undertaken in Northern Ontario. To expand on these remarks…

The Forest Health and Silvicultural Section of the Ministry of Natural Resources advises “in 2008, approximately 92 million trees were planted in Ontario, with 49.8 million of these in the Northwest Region”. Survival rates for Pine Spruce are typically 80 to 85% in the Thunder Bay area and are affected by lack of rain, higher temperatures and frost. Tree plant numbers for 2009 will be available in March 2011.

As one flies or takes a survol by Google over the vast expanse of Northern Ontario, one can’t help but wonder about the sustainability of the Boreal Forest. For example, in some areas notably near the Ogoki reservoir, there are any number of 10,000 hectare clearcuts. Huge areas are unplanted and without sufficient seed trees left standing for natural regeneration. Considerable piles of over cut and uncollected wood lie north of Armstrong. As forest tenure is being renogiated, often with the same companies that have left this mess, Northerners can’t help but wonder if there will be any improvement?

Also, the deplorable conditions experienced by many tree planters, mosty Canadian students, needs examining. Migrant workers picking crops in Southern Ontario have much better accommodation, food and standards than experienced by northern tree planters who are often forced to work in cold rain and snow while sleeping in tents. Certainly miracle planters might attain 5,000 trees under ideal conditions, however most struggle to plant 1,000 or 2,000 trees to meet their camp costs, clothing, travel and to have meagre savings for education.

A article on the future of the Boreal Forest and sustainable forestry in Northern Ontario would be welcome.

Submitted by Paul Filteau on Friday, June 18, 2010

Evolution happens with or without our consent or assistance. Yet it's hard to see the good in some of the growing numbers of invasive plant species. Good article, thanks.

Submitted by Tina on Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Informative and well-written article. Nice to see attention being paid to this important, though sadly neglected, issue in Manitoba.

Submitted by Tom Penner on Friday, May 28, 2010

Here is a slideshow from this year's Guelph Rotary Forest tree planting at wich about 1,000 people helped plant trees:

Submitted by Janet Baine on Thursday, May 27, 2010

We should cherish and protect the old-growth rain forests and what's left around us.

Submitted by james on Thursday, May 27, 2010

Canadian Geographic Magazine | Can Geo Education | Mapping & Cartography | Canadian Geographic Photo Club | Kids | Canadian Contests | Canadian Lesson Plans

Royal Canadian Geographical Society | Canadian Geographic Education | Canadian Geographic Challenge | Canadian Award for Environmental Innovation

Subscribe | Customer Care / Login | Renew | Give a Gift | Pay a Bill | Digital Edition | Back Issues | Calendars | Special Publications

Jobs | Internships | Submission Guidelines

© 2016 Canadian Geographic Enterprises