• Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the national park.

    Great Smoky Mountains

    National Park NC,TN

Citizen Science

Dispatches from the Field > Citizen Science

A student citizen scientist scans a riverbank for ash trees.

Citizen scientists search plots for winter ash trees.

NPS photo.

Have you heard of citizen science? Increasingly, parks, museums, and other organizations are collecting valuable science information with the help of people who aren’t necessarily trained as professional scientists. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, citizen scientists of all ages have played a role in different projects throughout the years. Last year public volunteer citizen scientists helped replant poached ginseng, find exotic earthworms, and catch bumblebees, among other projects. You can also watch a bumblebee video from a local newspaper about a family taking part in citizen science (links to non-NPS site)!

Current projects with the park, Discover Life in America, and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont are great ways for visitors and locals to get outside, learn, and help, as well as an excellent way for the park to investigate questions it otherwise would be unable to answer. Here are just some of the ways citizen scientists are helping resource managers at the Smokies collect science information in the field:

Ash tree ground-truthing: Last year, volunteer and student citizen scientists were part of a larger effort to map ash trees in the park. As the invasive Emerald Ash Borer moves closer to the park’s boundaries, resource managers need to know how many ash trees exist and where they grow. When volunteers spotted an ash tree, they noted its location, and this helped managers create a computer model that predicts where ash trees will grow parkwide, even in places no one has checked. This year citizen scientists will see how accurate that model is by hiking to places predicted to have ash trees. Their observations will help the park improve its model and protect trees!

Phenology observations: When does spring come? Are birds migrating earlier? Public, student, and camper volunteers collect information about the minute changes in living things—trees, wildflowers, and bird migrations—that give us clues about the larger picture of climate change and seasons in our park. As part of a new effort, school groups in Parks as Classrooms programs, visitors going on ranger-led hikes, campers at Tremont, and citizen science volunteers all have a chance to collect information about individual animals and plants. On a given day a note that a red-eyed vireo is singing, or that a magnolia’s leaves are just peeking out, provide simply an interesting snapshot. But collected over time, these observations about when living things leaf out, change color, bloom, fly north, and perform other cyclical changes give us a great look at long-term trends. These observations are part of a long tradition in these mountains: the park’s first naturalist, Arthur Stupka, left detailed phenology notes from the 1930s-50s, and for decades Tremont has tracked changes in natural systems of Walker Valley.

Citizen-scientist map of rhododendron species change.

A citizen scientist collected points showing Catawba (high elevation) rhododendron. Dark blue is highest elevation.

NPS map.

Invasive species checking: Volunteer citizen scientists are on the front lines of an invasion (of non-native insects) as part of a park-wide Adopt-a-Trap program. Volunteers adopt a trap (or many traps) and agree to visit them at least once a month. Giant purple triangle traps are hung to catch the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. You may see these traps swaying in the breeze high in the canopy of ash trees in the park. Small green traps hung within reach on tree trunks try to catch any Gypsy Moths, an invasive moth that destroys oaks and many other tree species. The park has hung these detection traps for several years, but last year was the first full season in which volunteer citizen scientists were responsible for most of the monitoring. You can help their efforts—and nationwide efforts to stop the spread of invasive insects—by not transporting any firewood, and by checking tires, tarps, and other equipment for hitchhiker insects. Read more about last year’s trap project.

Species mapping: At what elevation does Rosebay rhododendron change to Catawba rhododendron? And just where can I find the high elevation minniebush? These are some of the questions that baseline data gathered by diligent citizen scientists will help us answer. Armed with just a GPS (Global Positioning System) and species descriptions, citizen scientists will hike up steep slopes and along high elevation ridges searching for species that, while common, are not thoroughly mapped. Having a baseline map for these species will not only help us better understand where they grow now, but also allow us to track changes as climate, pollution, and other stresses potentially shift their habitats over time.

Other projects! There are many other ways for people to get involved in citizen science, both in the park and in their own backyards! The park is also beginning citizen science opportunities geared specifically for students. You can check the park’s online calendar for public and student ranger-led hikes, talks, and activities, sign up to volunteer with Discover Life in America, and visit the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont to explore other available programs. Find ways to be a citizen scientist locally at your home, workplace, or school by searching for “citizen science” online, and have fun adventuring!

Return to Dispatches from the Field main page.

Did You Know?