Add to collection
  • + Create new collection
  • Citizen scientists are volunteers who participate in scientific projects. They work in partnership with scientists to answer interesting and relevant questions.

    Rights: NZPA/John Cowpland

    Joan Wiffen

    Joan Wiffen was an example of a citizen scientist – someone who pursues science as a hobby rather than an occupation. Anyone can be a scientist provided they follow scientific protocols.

    Acknowledgement: NZPA/John Cowpland
    Content provided by NZPA and its licensors is their intellectual property. Any copying, republication or redistribution of that content (in whole or in part), including by caching, framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without NZPA’s prior written consent.

    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 Pūrerehua Aotearoa Trust

    The Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Pūrerehua Aotearoa 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.
    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Tagged butterfly

    Monarch butterflies are tagged and released to learn more about their overwintering habits.

    The MBNZT began collecting data about New Zealand’s butterflies in the summer of 2005–06. Their project involved citizen scientists tagging and releasing butterflies and observing and recording butterfly sightings. Citizen scientists entered their data into an online database. The data is available for analysis 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 tagging project finished in 2021. The data has shown that the majority of monarchs overwinter in the area around where they eclose (become adults).

    The MBNZT is also able to raise awareness of their goals by involving citizen scientists 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 observation and monitoring

    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. The Trust encourages students to report butterfly sightings to iNaturalistNZ. Other projects inlcude transects for gathering long-term data and observing monarchs in the school garden as part of the international Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

    Rights: Julie Stoneman, Butterfly Conservation Scotland.

    Transect walker

    People who help as transect walkers collect valuable data on the numbers and locations of our endemic and introduced Lepidoptera species. They also gain valuable scientific skills.

    Other citizen science projects

    The number of opportunities to be involved as citizen scientists continues to grow, and teachers are increasingly using them to make science education more relevant and engaging and to develop students’ science capabilities. Explore the projects listed in the Citizen science section, find one that sparks an interest or is local and see these tips for planning your science programme. Discover how to make the most of using this section in the article Using online citizen science projects.

    Below are some citizen science projects with a focus on butterflies and moths.

    Ahi Pepe MothNet

    This Participatory Science Platform initiative paired Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research scientists and others with schools to learn more about the distribution and ecology of moths in New Zealand.

    The Pieris Project

    Explore the work of researchers who have been DNA profiling white butterflies Pieris rapae to determine their ancestry and origin. Find out how you and your class could join The Pieris Project citizen science project to help add to this research.​​​

    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.

    Citizen science webinars

    For more help or inspiration, see our recorded PLD webinars:

    • Getting started with citizen science – Greta Dromgool and Sarah Morgan help to make sense of the growing opportunities to engage with citizen science.
    • Online citizen science – Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize winner Carol Brieseman shares her experiences using online citizen science projects in the classroom.

    The webinar mentions a range of projects – explore these and more in the Citizen science section on the Science Learning Hub. Find a project that sparks an interest and see these tips for planning your science programme.

    Useful links

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

    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 NZ interview with Zooniverse co-founder Chris Lintott.

    See the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust (MBNZT) website.

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

    Find out about citizen scientist Joan Mathews, in this Stuff news article.

    Visit the website for the Ahi Pepe MothNet citizen science project.

    Read The natural world in your pocket: How citizen science is democratising discovery from The Spinoff

    On the NZ Landcare Trust/Ngā Matapopore Whenua's Citizen Science Project page, download this informative PDF: Citizen science inventory – programmes, projects, resources and learning opportunities in New Zealand. This was updated in May 2018.

      Published 16 May 2010, Updated 9 February 2022 Referencing Hub articles
          Go to full glossary
          Download all