Help Acadia’s Scientists Better Understand The Landscape And How It’s Changing
October 27th, 2023
October 27th, 2023
BY SHANNON BRYAN
Nature captures our attention.
Whether we’re crouching down to peer at the petals of a pink lady slipper or tilting our heads back to admire the bird sounds from the forest canopy, it feels good to soak in the sights and sounds of the outdoors.
We’re also quick to snap a few photos of what we see, perhaps sharing them on social media for our friends to appreciate, too. But our casual observations can serve a scientific purpose, too.
By uploading our photos to phone apps such as iNaturalist or eBird, we’re contributing to a growing cache of data that’s used by scientists in Acadia National Park and around the world.
“We need all the eyes that we can get on the landscape,” said Abe Miller-Rushing, science coordinator at Acadia National Park. Those eyes help Acadia’s resource managers, “see how things are changing and how effective our management practices are at helping to keep the park healthy.”
To help park scientists stay apprised of timely real-world observations, Schoodic Institute developed an Acadia National Park Citizen Science Report that shares a weekly summary drawn from iNaturalist and eBird.
The report highlights pests and invasive species, like bittersweet nightshade and glossy buckthorn, as well as threatened or endangered species, such as peregrine falcons and black-crowned night herons.
The report also notes rare species and new species that have recently been spotted in the park, which is critical information to have when working to stay apprised of how the park’s ecosystems are changing—or how encroaching species might impact the park in positive or negative ways.
Much as they might like to be, park scientists can’t be everywhere all the time. But citizen scientists serve as valuable extensions of the team—out “in the field” observers throughout the seasons and years.
For identified restoration areas in Acadia, including the Great Meadow Wetland and the summits of Cadillac, Sargent, and Penobscot Mountains, citizen-science observations provide valuable ongoing data.
Both of those sites are part of Wild Acadia, the science-forward collaboration between Acadia National Park, Schoodic Institute, and Friends of Acadia, which aims to help park ecosystems be resilient to the changes happening within and around them.
A big part of the restoration work taking place in the Great Meadow Wetland centers on hindering the growth of glossy buckthorn, which tends to hold onto its leaves later in the season, unlike most native plants, which gives glossy buckthorn a leg up.
Resource managers in Acadia wonder if bringing up native plants from farther south, which naturally hold on to their leaves longer, will shade out the glossy buckthorn better than local plants.
“It turns out that a bunch of (local) people actually already have these same species that we’re thinking about on their properties,” said Miller-Rushing. “We can ask [them] to monitor the plants’ phenology—when they leaf out and when they shed their leaves—or how fast they’re growing, how many flowers they make, and things like that. That would help us decide whether they’re appropriate to plant in Great Meadow.”
“We also use iNaturalist, and eBird to some degree, to look at climate-change refugia,” said Miller-Rushing. Refugia are areas that remain relatively buffered from climate change, allowing valuable ecosystems to endure.
“iNaturalist will help us monitor the kind of indicator species that we’re concerned about,” said Miller-Rushing. Indicator species are those that have been identified to be able to thrive or not in certain areas as the climate changes.
“It’s not that things get really too hot for species, but the temperature makes it so the diseases that affect them can get here and then drive the species out,” Miller-Rushing said. That’s basically what happened to Acadia’s red pine, he said.
Warmer temperatures didn’t kill red pine trees, but those temperatures opened the door to red pine scale, an invasive insect, which took hold and wiped red pines out. It’s an example of why it’s so valuable to catch invasive species early. “We didn’t know that red pine scale was here until it was too late,” said Miller-Rushing.
Citizen scientists can help.
That said, species like red pine scale or the more recent hemlock woolly adelgid, which made its entry into Acadia last fall, are really small—it’s unlikely the average passerby would spot them.
But Miller-Rushing hopes there could be future opportunities for citizen scientists to get informative alerts related to specific species—what to look for and where to look—and in-the-field volunteers could be trained to spot particular species.
“If we can get more eyes looking for things, then we’ll find them earlier,” Miller-Rushing said. “We’re really lucky here to have the have people who want to help.”
Both eBird and iNaturalist are Internet-based platforms that can be accessed from a mobile device or desktop computer. At Acadia National Park, your records automatically become accessible to park managers and are available for researchers to answer questions about our changing world.
iNaturalist is primarily photo-based, and encompasses plants, animals, fungi, etc. Users submit a picture of an organism, along with the date and location of when and where it was seen. Users suggest an identification and other iNaturalist users then refine and confirm the identification, making the observation “research grade” and available to scientists around the world. Just getting started? Try the mobile application Seek.
Bird observations can be submitted to iNaturalist, but eBird is specifically for birds. You can track your bird sightings throughout the year and from year to year, learn where and when to find birds, and connect with other bird enthusiasts. Just getting started? The mobile application Merlin is a helpful learning tool.
More than a century before trailgoers in Acadia National Park began using smartphone apps to document the plants and insects they spotted, members of the Champlain Society recorded detailed inventories of plants, birds, and fish on Mount Desert Island the old-fashioned way: in logbooks.
In the 1880s, Charles Eliot and a handful of friends, all Harvard University students, began spending summers on the island. (Charles’ father was Harvard President Charles William Eliot, and their family had been spending summers in the region for years.) The group dubbed themselves the Champlain Society, and over the summers they became keen observers of the flora and fauna, making note of what they saw.
In their journals, they also noted how important it was that such a place should be protected for future generations. As the young Charles Eliot wrote during one of those summers on Mount Desert Island:
“The scenery of Mount Desert is so beautiful and remarkable that no pains should be spared to save it from injury—to the end that many generations may receive all possible benefit and enjoyment from the sight of it.”
Charles Eliot died of spinal meningitis in 1897. His father, after re-reading his son’s adoration of the island, worked with George B. Dorr to form the Hancock County Trustees of Reservations, which then went on to acquire the first landholdings that would eventually become Acadia National Park.
The Champlain Society’s citizen science helped inspire the protection of Acadia as a National Park.
“Acadia would be a really different place without all the citizen science that made it happen in the old days,” said Abe Miller-Rushing, science coordinator for Acadia National Park. “It’s continuing to help us protect it, and that citizen science is going to become even more important going forward.”
SHANNON BRYAN is Friends of Acadia’s Content and Website Manager.