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The Biggest Collection of Spiders in Colorado is Built on Citizen Science

Colorado Spider Survey vials

Arachnid specimens collected by citizen scientists through the Colorado Spider Survey at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science make up the largest spider collection in the state. (Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

When more than 3,000 entomologists descend on Denver at the end of next week, they’ll arrive in the territory of at least one army of bug collectors already on the ground—only a scant few of whom call themselves entomologists.

They’re the amateur scientists and entomology enthusiasts that drive the Colorado Spider Survey, a citizen science program run by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). With nearly 38,000 fully curated vials of arachnid specimens collected since 1999 (and more still to be processed), it is the largest spider collection in the state.

Entomology Today spoke with Paula Cushing, Ph.D., curator of invertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), to learn about how she built the program and about the ups and downs of running a volunteer-driven collection.

Cushing Texas field work

Museum curators don’t spend all their time in museums. Paula Cushing, Ph.D., curator of invertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, also gets out in the field, such as this terrain in Texas in 2009. (Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

Entomology Today: When did the Colorado Spider Survey begin, and what inspired you to launch such a citizen-science effort?

Cushing: I began the Colorado Spider Survey (CSS) in 1999. It is modeled after Dr. Rich Bradley’s Ohio Spider Survey. I wanted to begin a citizen science project that would have relevance for the people of the state. And the CSS, like the Ohio project, is a way to get members of the public involved in a biodiversity survey project, to teach nonscientists about the scientific process, and to get them excited about the arthropods that make up so much of the Earth’s biodiversity.

How much training do you give to the participants?

I get people involved in the project by teaching free 3.5–4-hour workshops. During the first hour, I give a PowerPoint presentation about spider biology: What are spiders, why are they important, how can you tell one spider (family) from another?

Then I go over the contents of a Colorado Spider Survey Handbook that I developed for the project. This handbook is also modeled after one produced by Rich Bradley for the Ohio Spider Survey. The handbook includes information about the importance of biotic surveys, a chapter about collecting methodology and data collection, a simple dichotomous key to spider families found in the western states, and copies of that year’s collecting permits.

Then, during the last part of the workshop, I take participants outside and show them how to find and collect spiders using beat sheets and sweep nets and by getting down and dirty flipping rocks, logs, and peeling bark.

What kinds of people do you attract to this volunteer role? Who are they? Do many of them have any formal background in entomology or biology?

People who attend the workshop have a variety of backgrounds. They include teens and a few kids (with parents) who are crazy for arthropods and spiders, retirees, school teachers, and young adults who just plain like spiders and find them fascinating. A few have a background in entomology or biology, but most do not.

I have taught the workshop to nearly 900 people since 1999. Of these, about 18 percent stay active with the project in various capacities past that initial training event. Some of these people go into their own communities and start doing outreach events on arthropods and spiders at local schools and parks; some go out into the mountains and other areas and collect for the project, dropping off their specimens once a year (after the collecting season is over); still others get so excited about the project that they begin volunteering in the arachnology collection at the museum, helping process incoming specimens, labeling, identifying, and databasing material.

How consistent is the quality of submissions you get from the volunteers?

I really stress the importance of data collection and the need for incorporating data with any specimens collected. I stress this verbally during the CSS training workshop, I also go over it in detail in the handbook (in the methods chapter), and I stress it with volunteers who work in the lab. I also developed an Arachnology Collections Manual that all volunteers working in the lab have to read before they begin working with the collection. In this manual, I also stress the need to include at least data on exactly where specimens were collected, the date collected, and the collector’s name.

Because of my emphasis about the importance of data collection and data quality, the specimens I receive have excellent data; most are even geocoded with the latitude and longitude of the collecting site included on the collector’s label.

What are the challenges you face in managing the program?

My biggest challenge managing the program is keeping people interested and engaged from year to year. I do this by sending out two or three (usually two) project newsletters to CSS participants. These newsletters are sent as PDF attachments to an email distribution list of “arachnophiles.”

The newsletter includes updates about the project, research news from the DMNS arachnology lab, synopses about arachnid-related news items, and a section called “participant news,” in which I include news from CSS participants about their observations or collecting exploits. This newsletter and my occasional other messages to my arachnophile list is, I believe, one reason why so many people remain active with the project past the initial training event.

What would have been necessary to replicate this survey with professional, funded researchers? Or would that even be feasible?

I really don’t think it would have been possible to launch or maintain a project of this scale with professional funded researchers. And, as long as the upfront training (e.g., the workshops, the development of the CSS Handbook, the Arachnology Collections Manual) are thoughtfully produced and are utilized consistently, one can maintain high data quality.

Field work

Citizen scientists who have contributed specimens to the Colorado Spider Survey have helped to fill gaps in knowledge about the distribution and diversity of arachnids in Colorado. (Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

What is your favorite part about leading the Colorado Spider Survey?

I love getting members of the public excited about the natural world—particularly part of the natural world that is literally under their feet and that they might not otherwise consider as important. I also adore the CSS volunteers who begin working in the arachnology lab at the museum. These people are amazing. They are dedicated, committed, enthusiastic, and they get why the work they do for the collection and the museum is important.

What advice would you offer to entomologists thinking about creating a citizen science project?

Spend a lot of time planning every part of the project. Spend time developing training resources. And make sure all participants get the same information and that you are consistent. And don’t reinvent the wheel! If there are other scientists who run successful citizen science projects, learn from those as I did from Rich Bradley’s Ohio Spider Survey.

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