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Huck Institutes graduate student launches Yellowstone Wolf: Project Citizen Science

Ecology student Emily Almberg is working to harness public interest in Yellowstone's wolves with a citizen science website aimed at improving research and public outreach.
Emily Almberg on Bighorn Peak, Gallatin Range, Yellowstone National Park

Emily Almberg on Bighorn Peak, Gallatin Range, Yellowstone National Park

By: Seth Palmer

Working in collaboration with her advisor, Peter Hudson, as well as Paul Cross of the U.S. Geological Survey, Andrew Dobson of Princeton University, and Douglas Smith of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Emily has been a part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project since 2004 — first as a field technician and public liaison, and now as a graduate student — studying the impacts of infectious disease on Yellowstone’s wolf population.

The idea that led to the Yellowstone Wolf: Citizen Science project has its origin in Emily’s work tracking the impacts of sarcoptic mange on the Park's wolf population: in the formidable task of recording monthly observations of every radio-collared and uniquely identifiable pack member, Emily and her colleagues came to rely on Park visitors' photographs — culled from various websites — as a way of augmenting their field observations.

“There are so many eyes and lenses out there every day, watching and photographing Yellowstone’s wolves," Emily says. "Many of these folks are really passionate about the science, too. We realized that it made so much more sense to invite these photographers and visitors to be part of the science and solicit their photographs through a citizen science website.”

After discussing the idea with field staff and non-scientists, alike — who responded with enthusiastic encouragement — Emily and her colleagues decided to launch a crowd-funding effort on Kickstarter.

“We turned to Kickstarter primarily for name-recognition," Emily says. "Although Kickstarter doesn’t have a science category, we figured that our project was well suited to launch under the category of photography. We’re hoping that we attract both the scientific and artistic interest groups.”

For several years, creative types, small business owners, and other entrepreneurs have used sites such as GoFundMe, Indiegogo, RocketHub, and Kickstarter to attract funding for their projects and businesses. But lately — as noted in a series of recent features on National Public Radio — crowd-funding sites are becoming an increasingly popular way of getting money for science, as well.

What Emily and her colleagues are proposing is simple: to create a website that makes it easy for the public to upload their photos of Yellowstone's wolves along with any other relevant information, such as location, suspected identity, and pack affiliation. Emily and the other researchers, in turn, will be able to cross-check the data with their own observations — potentially capturing a wealth of information that would have otherwise been impossible to gather on their own.

"This is an exciting and very cool project," says Dr. Hudson, "and I am very proud of what Emily has achieved in getting this off the ground. This is a good example of where citizen science and crowd sourcing intersect: the collection of detailed research data while also asking the public to fund a component of the research, and at the same time getting them intimately involved. The wolf-watching community is large, diverse, and very enthusiastic; they crave information on the history and dynamics of these packs, and Emily is going to provide them with a website which will do this for them."

“We are hoping that this really takes off, and that we are able to provide a formal outlet for the public to participate in the research on Yellowstone’s wolves," Emily says. "If the funding project is successful, it would be hugely helpful to our efforts to track and understand the dynamics of sarcoptic mange in the wolf population. It would be amazing if this turned into something long-term, too, and continued to provide data streams useful for all sorts of new research questions.”

Of the people he has met in Yellowstone, Dr. Hudson says: "I have bumped into a policewoman from London, a schoolteacher from Arizona, and a couple from Milan. They were all watching and taking photographs of the wolves' behavior, and now they will have a website where they can be actively involved in the research; they will learn not only the identification of the wolves, but also be able to see their whole history: which pack they were born into, their status in the pack, who their offspring and siblings are — and then they can follow 'their' wolves after they return home."

"The really clever part of all this," he continues, "is that Emily will be able to use the photos to map subtle changes in the extent of mange on each individual, and the dynamics of the infections within and between packs. Her work is starting to show that disease and its interaction with other components of the wolf's life history is important and can influence pack breakdown and larger aspects of the Yellowstone ecosystem."

“I think the most exciting part is that this is something that will belong to the public," Emily says. "It will be their resource. We’re hoping that with the public’s help, this will become a top-notch educational site for anyone interested in wolves.”

More information

If you're interested in helping to fund this project, or to learn more about it, visit the Yellowstone Wolf: Project Citizen Science site.