Vision for a Biodiversity Observation Network
Phase 1: Sandy Creek Nature Center

Tori Staples

Let's empower communities to run ecological research sites, engage their members in science, and generate the knowledge that society needs to understand and solve pressing environmental issues.

31 March, 2013

Climate change, land-use, pollution, invasive species, and other large-scale factors threaten biodiversity and the ecosystem services the biota provide. Without massive public participation in research, we are unlikely to understand fully the impacts of these factors and to develop timely solutions. These problems are simply too big to be solved by governments and professional scientists alone. Discover Life and our partners envision a network of study sites at which to mobilize the public and observe biodiversity. As an alumna of the University of Georgia and a member of the Athens-Clarke County community, I propose a partnership between Discover Life and The National Wildlife Federation to observe the biota at Sandy Creek Nature Center and other sites around the country to advance our shared goals of service.

Is it too much to dream that students and others empowered by internet connectivity, digital cameras, and a vast array of other technologies could solve the planet's environmental problems by collecting, analyzing, and acting upon data? By the use of digital photography, cell-phones, GPS, on-line identification tools, and the support of Discover Life's taxonomic experts, students and other community members will collect verifiable, high-quality data on species occurrences and interactions. By involving community members in meaningful, original research, we can develop their curiosity, creativity, and logic while cultivating a meaningful appreciation for wildlife.

Discover Life ( is a natural history website with servers at the University of Georgia. It integrates original data, provides web tools, and supports multiple citizen science research protocols. I want to begin by sharing Discover Life's most well-developed protocol, Mothing (, with the Athens-Clarke County community and establishing a permanent observation site at Sandy Creek. With the support of the NWF, I want to then bring this protocol to other communities and begin a biodiversity observation network in the U.S.

Moths are an ideal sentinel group to study worldwide. They are biologically diverse, ecologically important, and responsive to a changing climate. At some field sites, moth diversity can reach 1,000 or more species, exceeding the total diversity of vascular plants, macrofungi, lichens, and vertebrates combined. In terrestrial ecosystems, moths are mid-level members of the food chain and a food source for birds, bats, and other insectivores. Because they are ectotherms, temperature and other large-scale factors affect the distribution, phenology, abundance, and synchrony of moths. Therefore, observing moths should help us understand how climate change will impact pollination, herbivory, and other important ecological functions. Most importantly, moths can be studied safely and efficiently by non-specialists. Attracting moths to lights and documenting them using digital photography is easy, inexpensive, and safe.

It's my dream to use the protocols and web tools supported by Discover Life to run a permanent biodiversity observation site at Sandy Creek and to establish parallel study sites across the U.S. This project requires digital cameras and the installation of permanent lights. I will personally recruit, coordinate, and train volunteers to photograph moths. These volunteers will sample nightly and upload their photographs to the web. Discover Life and I will manage these data, documenting precise collection information (date, time, GPS coordinates). I will train participants to identify moths to species and to analyze the resulting high-quality data. With the guidance of the NWF, I will then establish additional sites. Potential locations include Discover Life's partners in Raleigh, NC; Birmingham AL; Los Angeles, California; and Hawkins, TX. Expected short-term results include: recruitment and retention of community volunteers, representing a diversity of groups, educational backgrounds, and occupations safe, nightly observation of moths accumulation of high-quality data, documenting moth diversity, abundance, and phenology web pages for participants to access their data, be credited, and analyze results Expected long-term results include: public participation in biodiversity studies that fuel the scholarship of researchers, educators, and students in communities interactions among high school students, university students, professional scientists and educators, naturalists, and environmental activists a community observation site to serve as a model for a larger network that can solve large-scale environmental issues SUSTAINABILITY Sandy Creek is an ideal home for a permanent observation site. The property is a wildlife preserve managed by Athens-Clarke County Department of Leisure Services. Thus, it is likely to receive sustained, public support. Discover Life has the capacity to host biodiversity observations and provide web support for my proposed work into the foreseeable future. The success of this project depends on the efforts of one or more community members to recruit and retain participants and to ensure that collection and safety protocols are followed. For the duration of the fellowship program, I will serve in this role, training volunteers to collect, understand, and share their findings. I aspire to bring this protocol to Athens-Clarke County and to then teach it elsewhere throughout the country. The NWF can support me as I recruit sites, purchase lights, coordinate volunteers, and educate others about the merits of participating in science.

Since 2011, I have photographed, identified, and data-based Georgia moths with Discover Life. I volunteered to start the site at Sandy Creek in January. Using temporary light fixtures and my own digital camera, I have already begun to sample moths there.

A Sandy Creek study site web page at will help me to implement project goals. The page will educate our community about the project and link volunteers to people, protocols, data, custom identification guides, and analysis tools that they need to participate. Our community is committed to the project’s success. I expect support from the University of Georgia. Faculty from the Odum School of Ecology and the Department of Entomology are committed to involving students from their classes. The College of Agriculture has already provided $500 for lights. Randy Smith, the Director at Sandy Creek, will advertise the project to the center’s 50,000 annual visitors and provide an educational display case for the project. I will personally mentor four high school interns in the university's Young Scholars and Young Dawgs summer programs, providing novel research experiences to minority students. I will challenge these students to involve their schools and to investigate their own research questions at the site.

PROJECT TIMELINE (10 hours/week expected, April 2013 – November 2014)
APR: install permanent lights; publicly launch project MAY: recruit community volunteers; refine safety and coordination methods JUN - JUL: organize and train 4 high school interns to take photographs nightly AUG: interface and train with the NWF; recruit entomology, forestry, and ecology classes at the University of Georgia SEP: outreach with interns to involve educators and students at their high schools OCT: evaluate the project’s first season NOV - DEC: recruit additional site; continue outreach in Athens-Clarke County community JAN: recruit entomology, forestry and ecology classes at the University of Georgia FEB - MAR: install lights and train coordinator at second site APR: launch second site MAY - OCT: support both sites simultaneously; seek funds and participants for additional sites NOV: final evaluation and report

I will evaluate this project with the following quantitative metrics: 1) the number of participants who collect high-quality data at sites; 2) the number of scientific publications and presentations resulting from the work, including science fair presentations and undergraduate research symposiums; 3) the number of attendees at community presentations; 4) the number of visits to the study sites' web pages; 5) the completeness and quality of the nightly data sets; 6) the number of participating classes; 7) the number of additional sites that we establish within 10 years.

I was born and raised in North Georgia. My academic and professional experiences have taken me from the greenhouses and pest-management laboratories of Walt Disney World to the red, Georgia-clay roadsides where I've researched fire ants. Over time, I have internalized the relevance of entomology and the role of insects in our world. Throughout, I have sustained an interest in public education and scientific outreach. My professional interests include data-basing and web-design using Perl programming, as well as continuing my studies of micro Lepidoptera. My greatest goal is to increase scientific literacy in the public and to share the meaning and beauty afforded by an empirical worldview. I have formed a permanent connection with Discover Life, though I do not expect to contribute to it exclusively. I have never been an affiliate of the NWF, but I am eager to collaborate with this exemplary conservation organization. I wish to create a permanent partnership between Discover Life and the NWF to expand and support a network of biodiversity observation sites.

Digital Camera, macro lens, SD card, spare battery, and accessories* …...................................$1100
Seed money for lights at additional sites*.......................................................................................$500
Travel to additional sites.................................................................................................................$400

*If the NWF funds me, Sandy Creek, contingent on their funding, will provide another camera ($1100) and Discover Life, seed money ($500) for the second site.