While Questing is an absorbing hobby in its own right, it opens the door for a number of Side-Quests that you may find enrich the experience. One such Side-Quest is to collect data for any of a number of Citizen Science projects actively under way in the twin states. By participating in Citizen Science projects as you Quest, you inform active conservation research efforts that seek to better understand and protect our local natural environments.
The Vermont Center for Ecostudies is one local research and conservation organization actively tapping into the power of crowd-sourced Citizen Science to aid local plant and animal species. The Center has set up a dozen different organized Citizen Science projects that community members like you can contribute to. They offer a range of expertise requirements from beginner to expert.
The VCE’s most popular project is the Vermont Atlas of Life, hosted on iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a website and smartphone app with which the most casual or expert observers of the natural world can help to keep track of the plant and animal species living in our local environments. The observations are logged in a public database of different species’ population data, which researchers and conservationists can then tap into.
iNaturalist is also a useful tool for Questers. You can take a photo of any species of plant or animal—mushroom to mammal—and members of the iNaturalist community will hop on and suggest possible identifications. Even the most obscure fungus or caterpillar will be reliably ID’d in likely a few hours, given your picture is detailed enough. The process is fun, intuitive, rewarding, and connects us to those in our communities that also find curiosity, splendor, and awe in the natural world. It also really enriches the Questing experience. Have you ever seen a new mushroom, insect, or shrub on a Quest, and wondered what it was? Snap a photo and upload it to iNaturalist to bring your discovery and learning full circle.
The Vermont Atlas of Life project has already logged more than 210,000 wildlife observations, of nearly 6,000 unique species residing in our tiny state. Citizen Scientists regularly log sightings of some of the most prolific residents like the American Robin (1,430 observations) and the Black-capped Chickadee (1,724 observations), submitting geographic data to help monitor population distribution and track trends from year to year. iNaturalist participants have also logged some of rarest and most ephemeral residents and visitors – like the Snowy Owl (250 observations, the 2017-2018 winter was a huge year for these), the Northern Two-lined Salamander (94 observations), and the Silvery Blue (88 observations).
A note on cataloging rare species: the pet trade is a real and serious threat to many species we know and love. For example, the wonderful wood turtle (0 observations on iNaturalist, and for good reason). Once relatively common in Vermont, the wood turtle has suffered habitat loss and illegal collection to the point of obtaining the classification of “endangered.” Reporting such species to public databases could accidentally lead to their being scooped up and sold.
However, these species are still perhaps the most critical to report. Reputable organizations like the VT Herpetology Atlas or the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife need need the help of Citizen Scientists to keep track of these endangered species to aid in their protection. So if you do encounter one of these beautiful shelled beasts, please report your sighting to an organization you can trust.