Skip to main content


A citizen scientist delights in the contributions of enthusiastic volunteers

Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction

Mary Ellen Hannibal
Workman Publishing
Purchase this item now

The bighorn ram lounging on a rock watched as a group of people searched the desert floor. “I hear a signal!” someone shouted. The small group scurried around, never looking up, intent in their search for a radio-collared desert tortoise. This expedition in 1998, sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute, served as my introduction to citizen science, a growing phenomenon in ecological research wherein noncredentialed observers participate in scientific data collection.

Public involvement in scientific fieldwork is hardly new. From the “armchair” naturalist Charles Darwin to the California couple who spotted sea otters returning to Big Sur in 1938, Citizen Scientist frames the participation of both professionals and casual observers as an essential part of ecological science history.

Author and avid citizen scientist Mary Ellen Hannibal traces an astonishing diversity of volunteer-enabled projects from tidal pool surveys to databases such as Nature’s Notebook, Fern Watch, Bee Watch, and Cricket Crawl. She also reveals how smartphones have given citizens the power to contribute to huge data sets, linked in time and space. Newer cellphone apps like iNaturalist or eBird, for example, use crowdsourcing to verify and document biodiversity.

Efforts to recruit more participants are on the rise as citizen science gains traction as a tool to document planetary biodiversity. Citizen Scientist made me want to jump off the couch and download everything from the Spotter Pro app, intended to keep ships from colliding with whales, to Story Maps, which allows users to create and annotate interactive maps.

Two scientists participate in the National Park Service Centennial BioBlitzCARRIE LEDERER

Citizen scientists participate in the National Park Service Centennial BioBlitz at Bandelier National Monument.

Citizen scientists are not limited to counting dead birds or scanning wildlife cams. “Extreme citizen science” initiatives seek to connect western science and indigenous cultures to create new kinds of knowledge. Hannibal describes one such project, in which archaeologists have partnered with the Amah Mutsun tribe of the San Juan Valley to restore cultural and ecological connections that have been lost over time.

Back in Joshua Tree National Park, the bighorn ram got to his feet, dislodging a chuckwalla. The sound caught our attention, and we watched as it disappeared into the desert haze. Just then, the radio-collared desert tortoise moved out of the shadows and, with whoops of joy, we pounced to collect data. Examples of the wonder and excitement I felt that day dance from every page of Citizen Scientist.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.