Using citizen scientists to assess climate change shifts in desert reptile communities

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Barrows, Cameron W., Josh Hoines, Michael S. Vamstad, Michelle Murphy-Mariscal, Kristen Lalumiere, and James Heintz
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Identifying effects of climate change, as well as other drivers of population shifts, across multiple taxa and broad spatial and temporal scales is challenging. Nevertheless these are the data that may be required to catalyze and focus management actions, separating the effects of weather from climate, and climate from a multitude of other stressors. An impediment to initiating research that fulfill these criteria is ensuring financial and institutional sustainability for an effort that necessarily could span decades. Citizen scientists have been put forth as a means for providing that sustainability, but is quality compromised when volunteers are collecting data? Here we evaluate that question for research focused on assessing the effect of environmental change across the transition between the Mojave and Sonoran Desert ecoregions of North America. While our research includes surveys for multiple taxa, here our focus is on measuring the utility of using citizen scientists for surveying diurnal reptiles. We compared data collected by two trained biologists to citizen science teams supervised by one or more biologists on the same plots. We also re-surveyed plots to determine if separate citizen science teams yielded similar results. The number of reptile species detected and the number of individuals detected increased significantly with teams of citizen scientists, and multiple sampling of individual plots showed those results to be repeatable. With carefully designed survey protocols and supervision by biologists, citizen scientists can be an important component of achieving sustainability of scientific research, without losing scientific rigor.


Barrows, Cameron W., Josh Hoines, Michael S. Vamstad, Michelle Murphy-Mariscal, Kristen Lalumiere, and James Heintz. 2016. “Using Citizen Scientists to Assess Climate Change Shifts in Desert Reptile Communities.” Biological Conservation 195 (March): 82–88. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2015.12.027.