• Across the street from their home in Bishop Mills, ON, citizen scientist Aleta Karstad and her husband Fred Schueler have converted an old general store into a natural history centre. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • This year, Canadian Geographic bestowed all citizen scientists, including Karstad, with its Environmental Scientist of the Year Award. In a country as large as Canada it’s impossible for scientists to monitor many aspects of the natural world. But citizen scientists have it covered. They help institutions by observing bird migrations, gauging rain fall, tagging butterflies and more. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • Karstad is one of only four amateur Canadian scientists with an interest in slugs. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • Although she doesn’t have any formal scientific training, it hasn’t stopped Karstad from thoroughly researching slugs. She dissects, preserves, measures and classifies them with the commitment of a professional. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • Karstad is rigorous in her note taking. Her father and husband are both biologists, so she has lived around scientists her whole life. “I was taught that anything I observed could be significant and worth noting,” she says.v

  • Karstad and Schueler have an interesting and extensive collection of preserved local species. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • Karstad and Schueler have an interesting and extensive collection of preserved local species. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • In the spring, Karstad and Schueler venture out at night into the swamps of the Limmerick Forest, just south of Bishop Mills, to gather various specimens and survey the area for migratory frogs. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • In the spring, Karstad and Schueler venture out at night into the swamps of the Limmerick Forest, just south of Bishop Mills, to gather various specimens and survey the area for migratory frogs. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • Tadpoles feed on the body of a dead frog. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • Karstad takes notes as she explores the swamps, gathering species and surveying the frogs. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

  • It’s often difficult for citizen scientists to get funding. Karstad and Schueler are searching for support for a venture called the 30 Years Later Expedition. To test their theories about ecological change, they plan to journey across Canada re-visiting places where they did research in the 1970s and 80s. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

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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.

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.

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.

That amateurs are playing a significant role in the progress of scientific research is not a new phenomenon. Until the 20th century, all science was the work of amateurs, really. Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, began his life’s work as an unpaid amateur, albeit a privileged and well-connected one. Gregor Mendel, a father of genetics, crossbred pea plants between his duties as an Augustinian monk. In the late 1800s, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and other young women were hired to sort photo plates of stars at Harvard College Observatory as a human “computer.” A graduate with a single college astronomy course under her belt, Leavitt developed a way of measuring the brightness of stars that became basic to calculating distances in space.

Around this time, the first generation of scientists to be themselves taught by trained scientists gave rise to the perception that only professionals were qualified to do “real” research. By the turn of the century, amateurs had been marginalized. But, in the past couple of decades, that mindset has shifted.

“We’re learning a whole lot more about the world than we could without amateur scientists,” says Shawn Carlson, a nuclear physicist who left academia in 1994 to found the Chicago-based Society for Amateur Scientists. “If you had 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 Thousand Eyes Project, which allows today’s Nova Scotians to share 50 different phenological findings online. In the Annapolis Valley, kids as young as eight participate via a userfriendly website, although they’re paired with high school students to ensure observations are accurate.

Examples abound across Canada. J’Adopte un cours d’eau (Adopt a River) was started in 2000 by Environment Canada’s Biosphère, in Montréal, and is now run by the Comité de valorisation de la rivière Beauport. In the past decade, more than 10,000 students — mostly 10-to-15-yearolds — have taken water samples from waterways near their homes or schools. The kids check for coliform bacteria, collect riverbed invertebrates for clues to the health of the river ecosystem and analyze water-quality measures, such as pH, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. Students as far afield as Manitoba and Prince Edward Island have signed on, and groups share their findings with similar projects in the United States, Europe and Australia. Students are a natural fit for such work because they’re accessible through the school system and tend to be both curious and observant. But there’s no age limit.

Carrying an ice axe in case she encounters slippery hills and to test ice thickness before crossing frozen ponds, Fraser Carpenter trudges among black spruce, fir, dogwood and aspen trees in Eastport forest outside Terra Nova National Park, on Newfoundland’s east coast. She reaches one of the “tracking tunnels” she had set up — essentially a triangular box containing a baited board, affixed about head height to a tree — and inspects the sticky pads inside for animal hairs. Carpenter is looking for signs of a pine marten, a weasel relative the size of a cat that is one of the most endangered mammals in Canada. Then the 48-year-old rebaits the trap with moose meat and puts a dab of skunk oil on the end of a twig in hopes of attracting one of the province’s 280 to 550 remaining pine martens.

“You don’t need much, just a drop or two,” explains Carpenter. The smell carries for at least a kilometre. Although she rarely finds much when she checks these boxes — usually just old meat — Carpenter returns every few days. For the past three years, acting strictly as a volunteer, she has been trying to document the presence of pine martens in these woods. The animals seem to be radiating out from the confines of the nearby national park, she says, but their progress is slow. And because this swath of forest is slated for clearcutting, proving that the martens are present here matters.

Like Aleta Karstad, Carpenter has no formal training in science. She’s a tour-boat captain in the summer and sews sails and boat covers in the winter. “But I’ve been a technical assistant for a lot of scientists over the years,” she says. “I’ve listened to what they have to say, and I’ve bought their books.” That she’s working as part of a project run by the Heritage Foundation for Terra Nova National Park is important, though. The key to successful citizen science often lies in collaboration between amateurs and professionals. In fact, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has been working with the public since the 1960s to “tackle problems ranging from global climate change to avian disease,” focuses on programs in which amateur and professional scientists work together.

For the past 15 years, University of Colorado at Boulder geographer Shari Gearheard has teamed up with Inuit hunters to monitor sea ice in Nunavut. “Working with local experts is common sense,” she says. “Whether it is an Inuk hunter or a farmer in Saskatchewan — these people know their environment, and their knowledge is extremely valuable. For me, bringing Inuit and scientific knowledge together helps to create a more complete picture of how the Arctic is changing.”

Let’s not delude ourselves— citizen science isn’t always easy. Aleta Karstad and her husband, Fred Schueler, refer constantly to the stress they’ve experienced over years of scrounging for one-off contracts to help fund their research. Right now, they’re seeking support for their 30 Years Later Expedition, a cross-Canada journey to revisit places they explored in the 1970s and 1980s to test their theories about ecological change. Or consider Mark Thompson, a young molecular geneticist who, in his spare time, runs the Northern Amphibian Monitoring Outpost Society in the central interior of British Columbia. Concerned about the dramatic disappearance of frogs worldwide, he started the non-profit in 2008 to get people to pay attention to frogs and salamanders. Despite his best efforts, it’s basically a one-man show, and he struggles to find committed volunteers willing to head out into the field.

Another challenge: ensuring that amateur data are reliable, precise and actually used. And another one: coordinating scattered efforts. And yet another: the apparent erosion of Environment Canada’s EMAN program, which once provided advice as well as logistical and financial support to dozens of diverse citizen-science initiatives. According to an Environment Canada spokesperson, “The function of the EMAN program is evolving, and the resources necessary to support these functions are being assessed.”

But those challenges fade into the background in Karstad’s living-room laboratory, where she’s holding a mud puppy (Necturus maculosus), a giant aquatic salamander with a cartoonish slit of a smile, so that I can touch its silky, spotted dark brown back. Schueler and Philip Scott, a home-schooled 12-year-old neighbour with a striking resemblance to Harry Potter, caught the mud puppy the previous night in a nearby river, where Karstad and Schueler have hosted weekly mud puppy counts with interested locals for the past 13 years.

Philip, who comes to the lab once a week to train as Karstad’s apprentice, feeds the live slugs (they like romaine lettuce, sweet potatoes and green beans) and kills less fortunate ones, drowning them in a mix of water and a foaming surfactant used in taxidermy, then injecting them with alcohol. I watch as, with tweezers and a steady hand, he painstakingly stretches out the parchment-coloured innards of an Arion slug under a microscope.

The boy carefully records his observations and sketches in his own field journal, and it occurs to me that Karstad is passing on the torch to the next generation. She prefers a biological metaphor — what I’m seeing, she says, is the natural process of amateur-scientist reproduction. Whatever imagery one uses, if Canadians care enough about this country to get their hands dirty, that’s reason enough to feel hopeful.


Better science through technology

Science is considered the domain of the square-headed and the highly trained for a reason — increasingly sophisticated instruments and research protocols require education and experience to master. But the continued evolution of technology, especially communications technology, is rapidly making it possible for average folks to play a meaningful role.

Joel Sachs, a Toronto computer scientist, is working on an application for the Linux-based Android phone and, eventually, its more commercial cousin, the iPhone, to enable community monitoring and identification of species. First, you snap a picture of any plant or animal you see. The phone inputs your location automatically, and thousands of people around the world could then collaborate to help identify your find. Sachs wants the app to use“push” technology — when you enter an area of interest, for instance, your phone beeps to push you to make an observation.

Geographer Shari Gearheard of the University of Colorado at Boulder has spent two years piloting a similar technology with Inuit hunters in Nunavut. A snowmobile-mounted GPS/field computer is programmed with icons for various common sights. Hunters who spot an animal or an unusual sea ice formation can quickly note what they see, and the GPS records the location. At the end of their trip, they can print a map showing their route and what they saw. Many hunters making observations throughout a wide area over a long period of time could provide important insight into changing migration patterns, species distribution and ice conditions.