Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: What would Thoreau do?


Last week I was thinking about Matthew Maury, and his historical pursuits in citizen science, because the artist-time traveler Benjamin Andrew brought the father of oceanography as a companion on some trips through history (his exhibit is at the Arlington Art Museum until the end of June). This coincided with Clavero and Revilla, in a correspondence published in the journal Nature last week, making the case for the importance of historical ecology as told by old citizen science data. Old compilations of natural history observations certainly have flaws and omissions, but they are proving to be the closest way that we can travel through time.

What is meant by “old citizen science”?

The answer differs by country.

With the relatively short history of the United States, a first thought of “old citizen science” might be the diaries of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was in touch with Nature’s pulse. When he recorded flowering times, we was like a participant in Project Budburst long before the project existed. Thoreau diligently noticed and recorded the flowering dates for over 500 plant species in Concord between 1852 and 1858. In 2008, researchers used these in analyses of plant phenology and climate change.

Thoreau could not have known that his efforts, combined with observations150 years later, would show that St. John’s wort and high-bush blueberry are highly responsive to changes in climate, or that Concord plants are flowering 3.3. days earlier for each 1 C increase in spring temperatures. He just liked to notice things bloom and felt that, as he put it, “life emits a fragrance like flowers.”

“Old citizen science” is much older if we look at observations in China, at which point the lines between citizen science and historical ecology blur together. For instance, a variety of Chinese historic records contain observations relevant to biodiversity. Some historical accounts that include natural history are The Historical Records (~3000-122 BC), the Chronicles of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 23 AD), Twenty Four Histories (2550 BC to 1644 AD), and Zizhitongjian (403BC to 959 AD).

Earlier this year these sources were used in the longest-term ecological study that I’ve ever seen. Li and colleagues showed range contractions that spanned over two millennia in the distribution of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), and three species of rhinoceroses: the two-horned Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and the one-horned Java rhino (R. sondaicus) (the authors treated the rhinos as one group since these species were not clearly distinguished in the historical records). Li and colleagues concluded that human-dominated landscapes are preventing these species from now expanding their ranges, which would otherwise occur given new weather patterns.

Let’s look more closely between these extremes.  Clavero, Rivella, and their colleagues use “old citizen science” by drawing on observations from the 1500s and 1800s to better understand the historical context of species distributions across contemporary ecosystems and landscapes.

There are two major historic data collection efforts that were citizen-science style that Clavero has used in Spain.

The Relaciones topográficas is a standardized geographic account that covers the years 1574 to 1582. It was created through a citizen science style survey during the reign of Felipe II (1556-1598). The survey was a series of questionnaires (interrogatorios) sent to villages. The instructions specified that the questions should be answered by at least two inhabitants of the village and these individuals should be “intelligent and inquisitive.” (In almost all villages, the survey was answered verbally to scribes sent by Felipe II). The questions were about local history, geography, population, social organization, religion, health, crops, livestock, forests, game animals, and aquatic systems and fish. This resulted in more than 4,500 records of over 100 wild plant and 90 wild animal species from over 600 villages.

cover of Madoz dictionary_ portada tomoII

The 19th Century Dictionarios was edited by Pascual Madoz into 16 volumes based on observations from more than 1,000 contributors between 1845 and 1850. Madoz found contributors who today would likely be participants in iNaturalist. Not claiming a specific research agenda, iNaturalist is a platform to share, and learn from, observations of nature. It is a kind of citizen science that assumes documenting is better than not documenting. As Madoz explained in the prologue to volume 1, he knew that he could not compile all the needed information himself, nor hire people to help, so he decided to “excite the zeal of illustrated people who (…) would like to cooperate, without any selfish interest, guided exclusively by the love to sciences”  (pg. 8). There was no official financial support to publish the Dictionarios. Instead, Madoz accumulated 8,000 pre-publication subscriptions in a crowdfunding-like campaign.

The contemporary source of biodiversity information is the Spanish national biodiversity Inventory, administered by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.

In a 2013 paper, Clavero and Delibes used these data sources to inform conservation priorities related to lynx in Spain. They compiled 151 records between 1572 and 1897. The observations fell clearly in the north or south, which the authors believe correspond to observations of the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) in the south and the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in the north. Since the historical records from South  correspond to Iberian lynx range in the 1950s, this region was likely the core distribution area for centuries. They recommend setting conservation priorities based on 1950s range. Old data have rarely been used in conservation strategies this way.

In a paper earlier this year, Clavero & Villera further argued for the necessity of historical ecology to fully understanding contemporary ecosystems and landscapes, particularly with regard to distinguishing native and non-native species. People have been moving animals around for eons. Without historic data, it is hard to know whether a species native to an area. When we lose information about historical ranges, we may face a conservation problem termed shifting baseline syndrome.

The shifting baseline syndrome is caused by failing to notice that the reference scenario guiding management goals is not a pristine state. As Clavero puts it, “We want ecosystems to be as we have known them recently, not necessarily as they naturally were longer ago. Knowing what to define as “natural” in an ever-changing system is difficult, or perhaps impossible.”

Clavero & Villero used historic citizen science to offer different baseline options for three aquatic species in the Iberian Peninsual since the 16th century: tench, common carp, and white-clawed crayfish.


Earlier this year in Conservation Biology, Clavero looked more critically at the baseline for white-clawed crayfish. The IUNC Red List categorizes the white-clawed crayfish as endangered.  Consequently, the Spanish government has recovery plans based on the reference system of the late 1960s when the range was at its maximum. The white-clawed crayfish started spreading in Spain 2.5 centuries ago. Now their populations are low because other introduced crayfish have brought disease. Are conservation efforts using the best reference system?

Spain has a similar situation with European mink. Globally, they are critically endangered, but neither the European mink nor the feral American mink are native to Spain. Why protect one and try to eradicate the other?

Once species have assimilated, functionally and culturally into the country, should they be the reference system? Given enough time, will all invaders eventually be considered native?

Humans have strongly affected animal distributions, particularly since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Ecosystems are dynamic. Selecting a baseline is a technical and philosophical question. With every generation we lose information, and so rescuing fine-grained and large-scale biodiversity data from the past can help.

Humanity has a long history of making observation of nature — from cave paintings to diaries to protocol-driven projects. As Clavero and others have shown, the next best thing to time travel are historical records. These lessons speak to the unanticipated value of citizen science. There are many instances were well-kept observations, perhaps thousands of years later, are re-purposed for important discoveries.

Photo credit: Thoreau with flowers, Thoreau decides to take a selfie (Derya Akkaynak), me photo-bombing Thoreau’s selfie, white-clawed crayfish (Miguel Clavero)


While appreciating the past, let’s also appreciate new discoveries from citizen science during the past week.  The roundup includes papers on beetles, jellyfish, galaxies, and dragonflies:

(1) Desurmont and Agrawal. Do plant defenses predict damage by an invasive herbivore? A comparative study of the viburnum leaf beetle.  Ecological Applications 24:759-769.

(2) Pikesley et al. Cnidaria in UK coastal waters: description of spatio-temporal patterns and inter-annual variation. J Marine Bio Assoc of UK

(3) Manzer and De Robertis. The effects of local environment on active galactic nuclei. Astro J

(4) Gillingham et al. High abundances of species in protected areas in parts of their geographic distributions colonised during a recent period of climate change. Conservation Letters.


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2 Responses to Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: What would Thoreau do?

  1. Pingback: Climate Change Science Aided by Huge but “Invisible” Efforts of Amateurs | All About Birds

  2. Brian Anderson says:

    The best illustration of a Thoreauvian mindset occurs in Wuthering Heights, where time is computed by blooms and birds. Typically,

    The first time she left her chamber was at the commencement of the following March. Mr. Linton had put on her pillow, in the morning, a handful of golden crocuses; her eye, long stranger to any gleam of pleasure, caught them in waking, and shone delighted as she gathered them eagerly together.

    ‘These are the earliest flowers at the Heights,’ she exclaimed. ‘They remind me of soft thaw winds, and warm sunshine, and nearly melted snow. Edgar, is there not a south wind, and is not the snow almost gone?’

    We have hundreds more books for your enjoyment. Read them all!

    ‘The snow is quite gone down here, darling,’ replied her husband; ‘and I only see two white spots on the whole range of moors: the sky is blue, and the larks are singing, and the becks and brooks are all brim full. Catherine, last spring at this time, I was longing to have you under this roof; now, I wish you were a mile or two up those hills: the air blows so sweetly, I feel that it would cure you.’