The joy of citizen science: see it, save it, send it

Imagine having the power to help endangered species become not so endangered. Actually, you do! Right here in Ontario! All you have to do is grab your binoculars, smart phone or digital camera and become a Citizen Scientist.

Citizen Science is taking off around the world as a way for everyday people to become directly involved in helping to record nature and preserve endangered species. No scientific degree required, just a healthy dose of curiosity and concern for the environment and a way to share your information.


There are literally hundreds of Citizen Science websites popping up all over Ontario, Canada and the world that allow nature lovers to enter their sightings and pass the data along to scientists. The data is then used to create a more global view of species – their numbers, habitats, migration and location in order to map out solutions for conservation.

Since most of us are out there capturing the wonders of nature on our phones and cameras anyway, why not put our selfies to good use and upload them to scientific databases.

“The more eyes and ears we have out there, the more scientists can gather official data about  the species in our parks,” says Erica Barkley, assistant ecologist for Ontario Parks’ southeast zone.  “We have ecologists, biologists and natural heritage educators who work in our parks who are reporting what they see, but we can’t be in every park every day so to have park visitors reporting what they see is extremely valuable and multiplies the number of samples we can record.”

Out of 30,000 natural species in Ontario, more than 200 of them are in trouble.  The list includes certain types of fish, birds, butterflies, mammals, insects, plants, trees, reptiles and amphibians to name a few. And although Ontario has some of the strictest legislation for species at risk in North America, having access to Citizen Science data from all over the province may even speed up conservation efforts.

“There is a lot of power in that data and long-term data sets are really valuable,” says Rick Stronks, chief naturalist at Algonquin Provincial Park. “For example, there are some areas where there are some real gaps in data especially in amphibians and reptiles, which we are losing at a very rapid rate. These species are relatively easy for the average citizen to identify so they can get involved very easily and actually start entering records for their neighborhoods. This can have a very significant impact on local development so we are not having wetlands that are just filled in or creeks that are just ignored. It can be very important.

“Citizen Science speaks to why parks are special to people and why we believe so strongly in educating our visitors about the environment so that it’s not just about being in the park. It’s about what you can do, how you can get involved and how can you help enhance your experiences so that they can make a difference on a larger global scale”

For example, Algonquin has bird data going back 50 years that has helped scientists establish departure and arrival times of certain species. So instead of testing their assumptions about migration patterns, or simply guessing, scientists can actually review the database and go from there.

“We can actually show through some science that these changes are happening,” says Stronks.

Another bird tracking mechanism, eBird Canada, started receiving Citizen Science bird sightings in 2002 and since then the number of entries has increased from almost nothing to more than 100,000 in 2013.  And due to reports filed by visitors, Ontario Parks has been able to record some of the first-ever sightings of rare and even common species.

“If we’re truly going to inspire the next generation to take care of our protected spaces, we somehow have to convince them that there’s something here that they want to protect. We want to make sure that they come and fall in love with it. Citizen Science is just one of the ways that we can say we do this”.

Species at Risk

For a list and photos of species at risk in Ontario visit the Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry website.

Citizen Science websites

  • Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Program – use this Ontario Nature program to identify and report reptiles and amphibians. A mobile app is available for free.
  • Fish ON-Line – record fishing success by lake and species
  • EDD MapS – an early detection site for invasive species. A mobile app is available for free.
  • eBird Canada – one of the first and largest online citizen science programs; records bird observations.  A mobile app is available
  • eButterfly – track butterfly sightings
  • NatureWatch – An ecological monitoring program that includes FrogWatch, IceWatch and FlowerWatch.

Citizen Science Tips

  • If you are participating in a Citizen Science program, Ontario Parks would love to know!
    • Park sightings are welcome at park offices.  Let the park staff know if you have also reported them to a Citizen Science program. If you find a species at risk or invasive species, let the park know right away.
    • Accurate GPS coordinates are the best thing for reporting locations. Learn how to use a GPS or a smartphone app. If not possible, mark the location on a map and describe it in detail.
    • Take a photo and share it with us! We can also help you identify what you saw.  Just post to our Facebook page or Twitter (@OntarioParks).