Mary Ellen Hannibal: Can Amateur Scientists Save Animals From Extinction?

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 1:02 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Citizen Science.

About Mary Ellen Hannibal's TED Talk

For centuries, amateur naturalists observed the living things around them. But Mary Ellen Hannibal says citizen scientists today have a new mandate: to help save species on the brink of extinction.

About Mary Ellen Hannibal

Mary Ellen Hannibal is a long-time journalist specializing in natural history and literature. Her most recent book, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, was named one of 2016's best non-fiction books by the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a Stanford media fellow.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Citizen Science.

You know, if you think about science - right? - for most of human history, science was done by citizens, by amateurs, by people who we might call citizen scientists today. Like, the age of discovery, these people didn't have Ph.D.s they were just building telescopes and, you know, looking at the stars. Like, that was science. And it really only became this institutional thing really in the last hundred years.

MARY ELLEN HANNIBAL: That's absolutely right. I mean, some of the first citizen scientists were really religious people because monks were collecting specimens of botany from around the world. They thought that the Garden of Eden must have been dispersed after the fall.

Lewis and Clark, you know, looking for the Northwest Passage and Thomas Jefferson who was a great citizen scientist - an avid, avid citizen scientist took amazing data points. Charles Darwin, himself, is really the poster child for citizen science. He did not have an advanced degree, and he worked for no one. He worked for himself - no institution.

RAZ: This is science journalist Mary Ellen Hannibal.

HANNIBAL: I mostly write books. My most recent book is called "Citizen Scientist: Searching For Heroes And Hope In An Age Of Extinction."

RAZ: Mary Ellen says that these early specimens and data points give us a glimpse of what the world looked like at that time.

HANNIBAL: Those specimens are records of life as it was lived in a time and a place. These are vouchers of reality. They tell you a lot about the environment and the place and the time in which they were collected.

RAZ: And if we compare those records to the data we have today, they can show us how our environment is changing and even where it's headed.

HANNIBAL: One of the things about citizen science that is incredibly full of - makes me full of awe and wonder is the ability to grapple with past, present and future. So this is what we're able to kind of visualize now that we've never been able to before. And that shows us where we are in our own moment of time in a way that, I think, explodes the notion of time and space in a "Star Trek" like way.

RAZ: So what does citizen science look like now?

HANNIBAL: Well, citizen science gets the term science because of its big data applications. Using smartphone technologies, statistical analysis, and just massive computing power, we are able to amass data points at vast scales that that connect local, regional, continental and global pictures of what's going on out there in the world.

RAZ: In a way, citizen scientists are kind of continuing the work of Lewis and Clark and Darwin and Jefferson. But this time, with the mission to, not only observe species, but also to save them. And technology is the key to compiling those millions of data points. Here's Mary Ellen on the TED stage.


HANNIBAL: This is a screen shot from a iNaturalist. This is one of my favorite citizen science platforms. So all of those blue dots represent people seeing pronghorn antelope. Taking a photograph of what they see, the app assigns the photographic observation - the date, the time, the latitude and longitude of the photograph. Because it's GPS, it's the atomic clock. It is that observation in time.

The important thing is I want you to know that we need to save nature and that we - it's a mob-sourced thing. What we want to do with something like iNaturalist is create this big biodiversity observation network. When we get this, we get data for all these kinds of species that you can see these patterns of how life is unfolding, get predictions of where extinctions are happening and then make surgical strikes to help those animals and plants.

RAZ: You know, we hear a lot about, like, the coming mass extinction on planet Earth. We will need experts to resolve that. But obviously, we also need ordinary people to observe, to gather data, to play a role in that process.

HANNIBAL: Yeah. You know, I think we all have a moral obligation to take part in this because there's so much at stake right now with how we're losing biodiversity. And the rate at which we're losing them equals that which took out the dinosaurs.

But even arguably worse than that is this massive loss of bodies of wildlife that we're experiencing. So even in the last 40 years, we have lost a billion birds. And then, you know, there's been commensurate proportions of loss of reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, large mammals.

So you start to see those patterns - right? - and then you start to understand that if we're really going to get a hold of this extinction and this loss of biodiversity, we need to get those patterns all over the world at much larger scales. And we can only do that by getting a lot of eyes out there. And then that was really we're citizen science comes into this is that citizen science is the tool for expanding that work and also for enjoining other people to participate.

RAZ: Do you think there's something to this idea of sort of taking part in something bigger - you know, either gathering data or taking observations or just contributing somehow - is a basic human instinct? Or do you think that it's something that, you know, very extraordinary kinds of people get involved with?

HANNIBAL: Well, I think it's something that is very pleasurable and accessible. Some people, you know, are just the most amazing, you know, amateur naturalists. But for those of us who are not as, you know, avidly driven by wanting to see every single slug or every single bird, it definitely is very satisfying for me to give data into bigger data sets and feel like I'm part of something bigger. So not only are you contributing today, you're also paying forward the work of people who came before you.

And that's another thing, that we don't know how scientists or people 50 years - we don't know what their questions will be. We couldn't have guessed that we would have the questions we have today 50 or a hundred years ago. So it's really part of being something bigger than yourself, and to me, that feels good.

RAZ: That's science writer Mary Ellen Hannibal. You can see her full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.