In November, 2013 we posted an article about Andrea Lucky, an entomologist at the University of Florida who’s using citizen science to encourage non-scientists to contribute to her research through a project called School of Ants.
“We think our School of Ants project serves as a good model for how citizen science can be used to collect more data, more quickly, and from more places than a research team could do otherwise,” said Dr. Lucky, who is co-lead author of a recent paper in the journal Ecosphere, which describes their work and its early findings.
“In order to address concerns about public participation in science and the validity of their data, we ran this trial to see if citizen scientists are as reliable as trained experts at collecting data,” she said. “We found that our non-scientist participants collected the same diversity of ants as the trained experts, which gave us confidence that broad participation in a project like this can be great for science, without reduced data quality.”
To attract ants, the researchers ask participants to use a particular type of cookie made by Keebler called Pecan Sandies. If you’re wondering why, it’s because “Pecan Sandies have been commonly used in ant ecology since the early 1990s, because they contain protein, carbohydrates and lipids, thus providing an attractive food source to multiple ants,” according to the authors.
Ant scientists use Pecan Sandies like fishermen use bloodworms.
The researchers developed a simple protocol involving the Pecan Sandies cookies and sealable plastic bags, detailing precisely how the public should collect and label ant samples before shipping them to NC State or UFL. This process was designed to engage the public in the aspect of the research that was easiest for non-scientists to enjoy and participate in, while also limiting the chances that the public could make mistakes that would skew the findings.
Once the ant samples arrive at NC State or UFL, they are sorted, identified by a team of national experts, and entered into a database. The information is then made publicly available in a user-friendly format on the project’s schoolofants.org website, allowing study participants to track the survey results.
“We’re optimistic that this project will give us a broader view of ant diversity and how these species intersect with us, where we live and work around the world,” Lucky said.
The School of Ants project was developed at North Carolina State University to help researchers get a handle on the diversity of ant species across the United States, with a particular focus on Chicago, Raleigh, and New York City. Now Dr. Lucky and other researchers are collaborating with international partners to get a global perspective on how ants are moving and surviving in the modern world. To build on the School of Ants model, the researchers have launched collaborations with counterparts in Italy and Australia.
“This information is helping us tackle a variety of ecological and evolutionary questions, such as how ants may be evolving in urban environments, and how invasive species are spreading in the U.S.,” said Dr. Amy Savage, a postdoctoral biological sciences researcher at NC State and the other co-lead author of the paper.
More than 1,000 participants, with samples from all 50 states, have taken part in the project since its 2011 launch, and there have already been some surprising findings.
For example, the researchers learned that a venomous invasive species called the Asian needle ant (Pachycondyla chinensis) has spread thousands of miles farther than anyone had expected. Researchers knew the species had established itself in the southeast, but study participants sent in Asian needle ant samples from as far away as Wisconsin and Washington state.
The researchers are also working with teachers to incorporate the project into K-12 instruction modules that incorporate key elements of common core education standards. One early teacher collaboration has led to a research paper co-written by fourth and fifth graders.
“We also collaborated with a science writer to produce a free series of iBooks featuring natural history stories about the most common ants that our citizen science partners are collecting in their backyards and sidewalks,” Savage said.
“One of our big goals now is to move from collecting data and finding patterns to identifying ways that we can work with the public to figure out what is driving those patterns,” says Dr. Rob Dunn, an associate professor of biological sciences at NC State and co-author of the paper.
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