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Spotlight on Amateur Naturalists
Contributions to Vertebrate Zoology
Citizen Scientists aiding Professional Zoologists
Many professional zoologists are aided in their field work by citizen scientists or observer volunteers. Citizen scientists are individual volunteers, many with no specific training in the natural sciences, who perform research related tasks such as behavioral observations, distribution records, or morphological measurements. These volunteers help to expand the reach of professional zoologists in the collection of data.
Some of the earliest examples of data collected under the auspices of citizen science include published records kept by fish and game organizations. The measurements that hunters and fishermen recorded of their trophies were often of use to taxonomists. Size ranges, including length and weight are morphological features used by scientists in the description of species. Serial publications maintained by sporting organizations include the Records of North American Big Game: A Book of the Boone and Crocket Club first published in 1932. The Boone and Crockett Club was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887 and provided the groundwork for hunting and game laws in the United States. This group, still in existence today, emphasizes the importance of a "fair chase" ethic along with conservation and the establishment of wildlife refuges.
World Record Game Fishes established in 1941 and now published by the International Game Fish Association, is another publication providing useful measurement information to scientists. Several state fish and wildlife departments have established game fish catch and release tagging programs that rely on the cooperation of recreational anglers. Anglers are trained to collect particular data including locality, species, and size, and then release tagged fish back in to the wild. This data is then sent to fisheries biologists who analyze the data to assess growth rates, abundances, and distributions of fisheries populations.
Much like fisheries catch and release programs, bird banding helps scientists learn about bird distributions. Amateur naturalists have always been major contributors to bird-banding. Famed naturalist John James Audubon is the first recorded bander in North America, having tied pieces of yarn to Eastern Phoebes to see they returned to the same nest sites. Michael Jarden Magee, a Michigan banker, was an ardent bander who banded more than 10,000 Purple Finches and published many scientific notes on the birds species occurring in Michigan. Charles L. Broley (1879 -1959), another banker, living in Manitoba, was famed as "The Eagle Man". After his retirement he banded more than 1200 Bald Eagles, largely in Florida, and led the fight for their protection. Samuel Prentiss Baldwin (1868-1938) a lawyer and businessman wrote Bird Banding by Systematic Trapping (1931) with University of Illinois ecologist Charles Kendeigh. Baldwin established a bird research laboratory in addition to assisting in the foundation of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He was an expert on the house wren and published many scientific articles.
One of the most prominent examples of observer volunteer programs, is the annual Christmas Bird Count organized by the National Audubon Society. This event was initiated at the turn of the 20th century by Frank Chapman, a professional ornithologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Looking for a way to counter the annual American Christmas bird "shoot", he organized groups of friends to go out on one day during the Christmas period and count birds rather than kill them. Since 1918 migratory birds have been protected through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and hundreds of day counts are now held across North and Central America during a two week period before and after Christmas. Though the National Annual Christmas Bird Count is done by laymen, scientists at several research institutes use the results to document changes and distribution of bird populations.
Along similar lines, Frog Watch, USA is a citizen science program sponsored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that is used to gather data on amphibian densities and localities. Networks of volunteer amphibian enthusiasts are provided training to identify the species occurring within their region. Collaborating with scientists, volunteers participate in spring surveys to locate breeding choruses of frogs. If a new species is discovered by a FrogWatch volunteer, they may have that species named in their honor.
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