How technology is changing field biology

Posting a picture online got me an ID from someone with expertise in minutes, while the snake was still in view! 'Course, it also garnered some smart alec comments (Moira!)....
Posting a picture online got me an ID from someone with expertise in minutes, while the snake was still in view! ‘Course, it also garnered some smart alec comments (Moira!)….

I was standing next to an experimental plot high on a ridge in the Rincon Mountains last summer when I looked up and saw the snake. It was winding its way through the vegetation, approaching closer and closer – only feet away! It was about four different colors. Its head was long and narrow, not triangular like a rattlesnake.

My field team and I watched as it snaked its way around us, apparently unconcerned. I pulled out my phone to look it up on Snakes of Arizona, but too many color options confused me. So I took a picture and uploaded it to Facebook, an hour’s hike off trail out into my study site in the National Park. Within minutes, the phone buzzed in my pocket. A graduate student with expertise in herpetology had already commented on my photo with the species name! I could now Google that snake to learn about it while watching it actively hunt in the wild, as long as I stood relatively quietly and did not startle it away. Imagine if it had been a rare or endangered species – or a dangerous one!”

As the earth reaches this point in its revolution around the sun, members of our species, at least in many urban areas around the globe, reflect on the new advances in technology and the way in which they change (or don’t change) our lives. We hear stories about Most Viewed trends on YouTube (spoiler alert: not science and nature!).

I share the snake story above to illustrate how our connectedness and more importantly the mobility of our devices changes my experience as a naturalist in the field. I can instantly have access to the experience and information of other people, even in (relatively) remote locations.

On the other hand, this connectedness in some ways underscores how much has not changed about field work, or academia in general. Some identifications are difficult or even unknown: if I post a photo of the summer germinating seedlings I am studying, I am unlikely to get back a quick ID. I have to make that seedling guide myself. But for something well known like the snake, what really helped me was having a network of experts that I could turn to. If I were still waiting tables instead of studying biology, a snake spotted on a casual hike would be much less easily identified. The public resource I could quickly find for snake identification with a Google search required some additional knowledge to take advantage of it.

But the internet does provide a platform to get help from experts outside my network – it may take a little more time and effort, but not nearly so much as the in person call of a century ago. After questioning everyone I knew who studied pocket mice about an odd dancing behavior I had repeatedly recorded in the field and finding no explanation, I compiled the clips to funny music, and posted it online. I was thrilled to receive responses via this blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email that provided a consensus opinion from experts I had never  met in person.

When I read the following email about the reach my blog had had this year, I was blown away:

“The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt: A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,600 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 60 trips to carry that many people.  Click here to see the complete report.”

Though science and nature videos may not match views of cats or video games on YouTube, and watching nature unfold on a screen is far less impactful than really being outside yourself, that is still far more people than I would likely be able to tell what I learn through more traditional mediums – and I undoubtedly am able to learn far more from others this way, too!

4 thoughts on “How technology is changing field biology

  1. As a technologist with a biology background, I also enjoyed this post. While I haven’t sought crowd-sourcing of field specimens, I have enjoyed leveraging my social network to identify the many and diverse creatures we spot along our hikes in the desert southwest. With recent news on IBM’s Watson and the like, I can’t help but wonder if a sort of automated support/intelligence might be on the horizon…

    On a side note, Pacifica, I organize a regular STEM community meeting for the Tucson area. Please connect with me on LinkedIn or contact me at brian (dot) ellerman (at) sanofi (dot) com if you’re interested in joining.

  2. Absolutely true about needing a network or your own research for the more difficult identifications but anyone can post to inaturalist or Project Noah with a snake, bug, leaf, etc… there are so many helpful users ready to identify your discoveries. excellent posts!

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