A photo of a young woman outside examining a wire fence and a photo of a black bear climbing a tree
Left: Researcher Eleanor Hollers ’21. Right: A bear spotted by a citizen in Chester, Mass.

Biochemistry major Nawoo Kim ’22 used to assume being a scientist meant toiling in a research facility, wearing “the white lab coat and holding all these chemicals and beakers.” But last year, Thea Kristensen, biology laboratory coordinator, introduced her to a different kind of science project. “When she told me about citizen science, I was really surprised,” Kim says. “I didn’t know that science went beyond the things you could do in the lab and you could also extend to reaching out to the community.”

Citizen science is when scientists work with members of the general public to collect, share and analyze authentic data. In the case of the Pioneer Valley Mammal Citizen Science project—led by Kristensen, with Amherst student researchers—local residents submit photos and videos of the wild mammals they spot in back yards and on hiking trails. Since the project’s website went live in June, locals have contributed hundreds of images of bears, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, deer and at least one porcupine. (Not every mammal species can be counted, though: “If we tried to do bunny sightings, I think we’d be inundated by now,” says Kristensen.)

Her lab’s main focus is tracking the abundance and distribution of black bears in the area; the mammal project grew out of, and will help to inform, an ongoing endeavor called MassBears, done in collaboration with MassWildlife, the Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and UMass Amherst. In 2019, Amherst students participated in fieldwork, setting up wire “hair corrals” to catch hair samples from passing bears, which they could then genotype in the lab.

COVID-19 put the fieldwork and lab work on hold. So several of the students have focused instead on community outreach, setting up a Facebook page and speaking to local news reporters to encourage Massachusetts folks to submit their mammal sightings.

Now that the data points are rolling in, the team is considering what kinds of questions they might ask and answer about the region’s mammal populations, and in what directions they might take the research over the coming months and years. “I’ve worked to have it be pretty student-driven,” Kristensen says, praising the undergrads for their ingenuity and dedication. “I need to cheer them on, because they’re amazing.”

Photograph by Maria Stenzel (Hollers)