Roadkill. A problem that is getting worse.
Community science is trying not to look away.
This fall semester, I'm enrolled in a graduate-level class, Research for Writers, at a nearby university. It's more intriguing than you might expect, and our coursework delves into various aspects of research and investigative methods we might want to employ. Our thought process always commences with our "big questions," prompting us to ponder what we're genuinely curious about. The readings and examples in class are refreshing to me, especially those that revolve around inquiry conducted by individuals with a profound curiosity about the natural world.
Last week after I dutifully did my classwork, I heard the podcast, “Cars are a major predator for wildlife.” The podcast discussions covered how urban planners are devising strategies to create more wildlife crossings to reduce animal fatalities. This piqued my interest in roadkill, and as I delved deeper into that topic, I happened upon the story of a biologist from the early 2000s, Robert Knutson. What struck me about Knutson, and made me think back to the class I was taking, was how his fundamental approach began with curiosity and a few big questions. Here’s the essence of the story of this late researcher who was curious about animals:
In the early 2000s, Knutson, a retired biology professor from Michigan, began contemplating the deceased animals he would encounter along the road. He pondered: how often do we only encounter wildlife in the form of lifeless bodies, flattened on the asphalt after being struck by a car? He confided in a colleague, remarking, “those (until now) unremarkable spots and patches of fur, feathers, and scales are the wildlife we most frequently encounter, yet there hasn't been a guide to help identify them.” Knutson refined his research questions and diligently sought answers. He aimed to uncover which animals were most frequently killed on the roads and how this problem was escalating. As a lifelong naturalist and scientist, he conducted his research, summarized his findings, and in 2006, published Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways. Knutson’s book highlights the 36 most commonly encountered roadkill specimens, shedding light on an undeniable trend: as land and road development expands, the numbers of flattened animals surge as well.
The issue has only gotten worse in the 16 years since Knutson began his contemplation of roadkill and penned his observations. In fact, the rapid proliferation of roads and vehicles in the US over the past decades has elevated the problem of roadkill to such an extent that, excluding the meat industry, automobile collisions now surpass hunting as the foremost human cause of vertebrate mortality.
This week, I did my own research to find out about community science, and how it relates to roadkill. There are two main apps we can use: iNaturalist and RoadKill, both rely on observers taking photos of the specimen and uploading them to the app. The advantage of iNaturalist is that many users may already be familiar with the app and have it downloaded to the phone. The advantage of RoadKill is that it directly collaborates with a whole ecosystem of stakeholders in the public sector, and will potentially provide immediate notification, dispatching to pick and and remove roadkill if needed. Either way, taking photos of roadkill can add valuable data to research and the power of crowdsourcing (smartphones are almost everywhere) is key to success.
About buggage and when citizen science meets the front of your car.
Buggage is the term that refers to dead bug bodies that sometimes accumulate on the front of your vehicle.
Buggage is bad for the car, worse for the bugs.
In 2021, Dutch scientists ventured into the world of "buggage" by launching a citizen science project on insect mortality. Participants were asked to take daily photos of their front license plates, document mileage, and clean their plates each day. Their data, from 18,000 deceased insects, was extrapolated to suggest that approximately 228 trillion insects meet their fate on the world's 36 million kilometers of road each year.
While this Netherlands-based study didn't produce a specific outcome, the proactive use of crowdsourcing and community science to gather "buggage" data is intriguing. All these discoveries have looped back to my research class, where I’m still framing my guiding questions for the semester. One thing you can bet on: it will be about some form of community science for sure!
NASA scientists are really opening the door wide to community scientists who’d like to get involved now in preparations for the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse. That eclipse will be, by the way, the last one in the US until 2044. By 2044, some of us will beginning to be almost old. Read more in my next newsletter!
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