Citizen Science

Science & Research > 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 scientific 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. In recent years public volunteer citizen scientists helped replant poached ginseng, monitor the starting time of leaf-out and other phenologies, and collected dragonflies for a study of mercury in park animals, among other projects.

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:

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 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.

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!

Project Budburst - Help us collect data on target species of high and/or low elevation trees wherever you are hiking in the park. You can use a datasheet and then enter data on the Project Budburst website or collect data directly into a pre-downloaded app and upload it when you are back in connectivity. This link will take you to the project's website where all of the materials and instruction needed to collect data may be found.

iNaturalist! - There are two projects that are specific to the Smokies. One project is called
Discover Life in America. Take photos of anything you see interesting in the park while you hike. If you can't identify it, that is part of the fun! Other specialists who use iNaturalist will help with species ID. From your posts, the park will capture good location information that we can use for the Species Mapping project described above.

iNaturalist also hosts
Otter Spotter. In this study, visitors can let us know where they see river otters or signs of otters while in the park.

Picture Post - The Smokies has a
picture post project at the Campbell Overlook on HWY 441, approximately 4 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There are two exhibit panels and a photo post to capture a series of photographs that may be uploaded on the Picture Post website. This overlook has an unobstructed view of a portion of the area that recently burned in the November 2016 fire. The photots will help us track change over time, including how this area recovers from the fires.

There are many other ways for people to get involved in citizen science, both in the park and in their own backyards! The park has also developed 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!

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Last updated: April 7, 2017

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