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Citizen scientists are volunteers who participate in scientific projects. They work in partnership with scientists to answer interesting and relevant questions.

When involved in environmental projects, citizen scientists are active in collecting data and performing other research-related tasks. These can include observation, monitoring, tagging and measuring. The data collected by citizen scientists is then analysed by research scientists.

Citizen scientists are just like you and me

Citizen science is an ancient concept. You might say it originated with our earliest efforts to identify which plants were beneficial or dangerous. Modern day science is quite specialised and often the domain of universities and research institutes. However, for many people, science is a hobby – they do it because they love it. Some hobbyists like Albert Einstein (who developed his theory of special relativity while working as a patent clerk) or Joan Wiffen (who found New Zealand’s first dinosaur fossil) become well known. For other people, citizen science is a way to become involved in local or national issues.

In New Zealand, Crown Research Institutes and the Department of Conservation regularly recruit interested individuals to become involved in monitoring or restoration projects. Forest and Bird is an example of a volunteer organisation whose members collect data from bird counts and the monitoring of pest traps to help with conservation activities.

With the advent of modern technology, scientists are helping us to go global with citizen science. For example, by using the internet, we are able to log information about migratory animal sightings. Even those people with no time to spare can aid research. Individuals can donate their computer system’s idle processing time to research topics as diverse as searching for extra terrestrial life to guarding against smallpox.

Citizen scientists include school students, teachers, retirees, gardeners and farmers to name a few. What they have in common is an interest in the science being investigated and the desire to become involved.

Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust

The Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust (MBNZT) is a citizen science project involving hundreds of volunteers around the country.

The research project began with two aims:

  • To tag monarch butterflies to help learn more about their overwintering habits in this country.
  • To walk transects to collect data about the numbers and locations of our endemic and introduced Lepidoptera species

The MBNZT began collecting data about New Zealand’s butterflies in the summer of 2006–07. Their project involves citizen scientists tagging and releasing butterflies and observing and recording butterfly sightings. This data is entered by the citizen scientist into an online database and is analysed by scientists specialising in this field. The involvement of citizen scientists is ideal, as it enables the MBNZT to collect data nationwide that would be too costly to collect if it were using paid expert personnel.

The MBNZT is also able to raise awareness of their goals by involving these people in their work. This combination of research and outreach enhances the MBNZT’s aim of improving the understanding of biodiversity in relation to butterflies and moths and their habitats.

Getting involved with tagging and transects

The MBNZT welcomes school involvement. It encourages students to become citizen scientists so they gain experience in observation, measuring, making hypotheses and evaluation skills while working within an authentic and engaging context.

Articles and progress updates from the tagging and transect data are published on the MBNZT website and in their quarterly magazine. Keeping in touch with participants is important. By actively engaging students in this on-going research project and with regular email contact, it’s hoped that they’ll increase their understanding of scientific investigation and the nature of science.

Ahi Pepe MothNet 

Another citizen science project involving Lepidoptera species is Ahi Pepe MothNet. This Participatory Science Platform initiative pairs Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research scientists and others with schools to learn more about the distribution and ecology of moths in New Zealand.

Nature of science

Scientific investigations involve the collection of relevant data. Citizen scientists contribute to investigations by acting as many sets of eyes with which to make observations and record data. Scientists then use their expertise to make sense of the information collected. Even children can be scientists, provided they follow scientific procedures.

Useful links

Check out the large collection of citizen science resources that we have curated in this Pinterest board and this Pond collection.

Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for citizen science. Over one million users contribute to projects ranging from astronomy to zoology.

Listen to a Radio New Zealand interview with Zooniverse co-founder Christ Lintott.

The Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust website has information on the projects that they're running.

Get information from Forest and Bird on initiatives in your area.

See a citizen scientist in action

The University of Notre Dame has a citizen science project involving the white butterfly (Pieris rapae). Researchers will investigate genetics and diversity, how phenotype (colour, shape and size) has changed as butterflies adapted to new countries and if nitrogen fertilisers affect the wing colour. They ask citizen scientists to ship specimens to the University of Notre Dame, IN in the United States. (New Zealand residents do not need a permit to ship the Pieris rapae butterfly). Visit the Pieris Project website for further information.

Visit the Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research site to learn more about the Ahi Pepe MothNet citizen science project.

Listen to this podcast mini-series, Citizens Disrupt and tour the world of citizen science - ranging from sunflowers to microscopy.

Download this informative PDF from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research: An inventory of citizen science – programmes, projects and learning opportunities in New Zealand.

    Published 16 May 2010, Updated 8 August 2018 Referencing Hub articles