The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Tennessee Aquarium floats citizen-scientist app to extend the reach of public research

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Black Crappie in the Tennessee AquariumA black crappie is seen in the Tennessee Aquarium. Citizen scientists across the region can now plug their fish findings into a new database. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

So you want to be a citizen scientist? There’s a new app for that!

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute wants to assess the status of various fish populations throughout the Southeast so it released a new app to help outdoor folks and anglers identify the fish they spot, report the sighting, and enter their discoveries into a regional fish database.

The Freshwater Information Network (FIN) accepts and includes data for three major watersheds: The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Mobile Bay.

Tennesseans may be familiar with the two rivers, but may think of Mobile Bay as a distant place with no connection to them, but its headwaters touch Tennessee in the Conasauga River. With its geographic isolation, the Conasauga is home to species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

Our region has more species of fish than any other part of the country, and the open FIN database and application includes information on nearly half the U.S. species of fish. When hikers, boaters or anglers spot a fish, they can participate by first photographing it and then uploading the photograph to the app.

The app can help citizens themselves identify the fish, and when paired with GPS location data it becomes a part of the FIN database, which also includes museum records and interactive maps. The app also allows a user to enter their address to find their watershed and access a list of the fish that live there.

FIN Watershed Map

The Tennessee Aquarium developed this app in conjunction with iCube, the technology research center at Tennessee Technological University, FIN is one of many technological assistants to watchers of the natural world. Others include Merlin, a bird identification app from the Cornell University of Ornithology.

Smartphone or tablet apps are but one of many paths into the domain of citizen science. In her book, “Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World,” nature author Sharman Apt Russell documents her work to support scientific research, efforts which sound familiar to birders who have participated in such projects as the Christmas Bird Counts or Project Feeder Watch.

She weaves three narrative threads together into a unified picture of citizen science, beginning with her own research on the Western red-bellied tiger beetle. To this strand, she adds lyrical descriptions of her home and research area in New Mexico.

In the third narrative thread she presents descriptions of other citizen scientist opportunities such as Nature’s Notebook, which asks citizen scientists to observe the times when various species of plants come into bloom.

The ongoing phenology project at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a prime, local example of citizen science. In this program, citizen scientists make regular visits to plotted collections of trees to document their canopy development (or not) over the course of a year, and ultimately, years.

Some of the opportunities she discusses are computer-based, such as Galaxy Zoo, in which participants review telescope photos on their computer to classify distant galaxies. Efforts coordinated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology receive prominent mention.

Russell does not discuss apps and is quick to point out that citizen science is hard work. It may include hours of tabulating data and confirming results. Russell presents the material in a format accessible to general readers, who may not be as familiar with the idea of citizen science.

The author’s own experience with citizen science is through the iNaturalist app, which has an extensive database including plants, fungi, and many kinds of animals. On a recent hike of the Glenn Falls Trail near Chattanooga, I photographed several species with my phone, including a regal moth and an ebony spleenwort fern. I identified both specimens through the app, though I was already certain of the ebony spleenwort’s species and entered them into the database.

iNaturalist recorded the GPS data when I took the photographs. Experts in the system reviewed and confirmed my sightings, and the were labelled “Research Grade.” They are now part of a database which scientists can use to track the distribution, populations and times related to the appearances of these species.

If you have a hobby such as bird watching or wildflower enjoyment, you can become a citizen scientist and contribute a wealth of data to the scientific inventory documenting the ongoing occupants of, and changes to, our beautiful, highly threatened planet.

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    The aquarium has been unable to source butterflies to fill the Ocean Journey building’s Butterfly Garden since early 2020 because of supply chain disruptions.

    The butterflies typically originate from Costa Rica. Every week, about 500 butterfly chrysalises — the life stage between caterpillars and full-fledged adults — are delivered to the aquarium. By raising specific plants, Costa Rican farmers can attract butterflies that use the plants as egg-laying sites and feeding sources for their offspring. By collecting and shipping chrysalises to facilities like the aquarium, farmers can earn a reliable income without resorting to destructive agricultural practices that threaten their country’s rainforests.

    And just in time for the holidays, the Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden will reopen to the public Nov. 5. This warm, light-filled gallery in Chattanooga is once again filled with these jewel-like insects, which flutter in the air by the hundreds.

    “They have so many bright colors and intricate patterns that they’re kind of like living works of art,” said entomologist II Rose Segbers. “The butterfly garden is special because it’s completely immersive. There really aren’t any barriers between guests and the butterflies or the habitat.

    “You can see everything just like you would in nature, and a butterfly might even land on you.”

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    At any one time, the garden houses as many as 1,500 butterflies. These can come from any of more than two dozen species, from cerulean-winged blue morphos to enormous tawny owls with their tell-tale eyespots. 

    “You get a lot of variety in here,” Segbers said. “If you come here one week, you’ll see a certain variety of butterflies, but if you come back a week later, you might see completely different ones. It gives people a good excuse to keep coming back.”

    The cocoon-like chrysalises can be viewed hanging from racks through a special viewing window in the garden. Their shells often look drastically different from the butterflies within. Who would suspect that the familiar orange, black and white monarch butterfly would come from a gold-fringed, jade chrysalis or that leaf-like pink or green chrysalises are host to brilliant yellow cloudless sulfurs?

    Entomologist Rose Segbers pins Blue Morpho butterfly pupae to a hanging tray, where they will hang until they emerge in a few weeks time.Entomologist Rose Segbers pins blue morpho butterfly pupae to a hanging tray, where they will hang until they emerge in a few weeks time. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

  • State’s fight against Asian carp scales up

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  • Tracing the historical course of the Tennessee River through Knoxville

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  • Keep your butts out of the Tennessee River

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  • Saving America's "Amazon" in Alabama
    Book cover Saving Americas Amazon in Alabama

     

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  • Marking points in time: The Hal DeSelm Papers
     Deselm 004
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