As Earth Day nears, citizen scientists help UF/IFAS preserve the environment

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Debbie Goad heard about a horseshoe crab study run partly by the University of Florida, she jumped at the opportunity. She practically grew up in or near the water in South Florida. In addition, her father was an avid sportsman: scuba diving, spear fishing, deep-sea fishing — he did it all.

“I remember him bringing home a couple of horseshoe crabs one day,” said Goad, of Bronson. “I remember being fascinated with this spider-like crab that had a hard shell. I was probably about 6 when I saw my first crab.”

Faculty with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and staff with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission run the program.

When Goad started participating in the horseshoe crab preservation project along the Gulf Coast, she grew nostalgic and proud.

“It brought back a lot of fond memories I had forgotten,” Goad said. “I knew that by volunteering, I would be given the most recent, firsthand information on something that had inspired and fascinated me as a child.”

As a citizen scientist, Goad documents horseshoe crabs on beaches during specific times and days – for example, high tides and full moons. She and her colleagues also count breeding pairs.

With Earth Day coming on April 22, Goad serves as an example of the many lay people who participate in the citizen science projects coordinated by UF/IFAS faculty.

“Citizen scientists gather essential data for UF/IFAS faculty that enable our researchers to conduct top-notch experiments,” said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “By utilizing our lay, volunteer scientists, UF/IFAS researchers can help conserve our natural resources. That makes them an essential asset for Earth Day and year-round.”

These projects help preserve the environment:

  • Horseshoe crabs: Savanna Barry, a regional specialized agent for coastal ecosystems for UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant in Cedar Key, helps coordinate the horseshoe crab program.

In the fall of 2017, More than 100 citizens helped FWC and UF/IFAS by finding horseshoe crab nests and tagging the crabs. In 2017, volunteers completed 178 surveys at sites in four counties along the Nature Coast – Levy, Dixie, Taylor and Franklin.

“Simultaneous sampling across such a large geographic area would be impossible without the help of citizen scientists,” Barry said. “FWC is dedicated to collecting data on horseshoe crab nesting, but does not have anywhere near enough staff to achieve the high level of data collection the volunteers are able to complete.”

  • Air potato – Floridians are trying to contain the invasive air potato. For example, residents can use the air potato leaf beetle as a biological control agent for the air potato, said Ken Gioeli, a natural resources agent with UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services-Division of Plant Industries (DPI), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and UF/IFAS coordinated citizen science volunteers that released thousands of adult beetles to manage the air potato in Florida, Gioeli said.

For more information on the air potato biological control program in Florida, click here:

William Lester, residential and commercial horticulture agent for UF/IFAS Extension Hernando County, works with the state DPI to get residents to help collect data on air potato and the leaf beetle. This statewide program greatly increased public participation, with more than 460 volunteer citizen scientists contributing to the program’s knowledge last year, Lester said.

Those interested in participating should click here:

  • Backyard beetles: In this project, people catch beetles and send them to the lab for scientific research to see which types of beetles live where. Scientists need to identify beetles and where they live, because some beetle species can be dangerous to forests and even to agricultural crops like avocados, said Jiri Hulcr, an assistant professor of forest resources and conservation, who also has a courtesy appointment in entomology.
  • Burrowing owl: About 350 burrowing owls live on Marco Island, said UF/IFAS graduate student Allison Smith, who helps coordinate a citizen science project aimed at preserving the owls.

Burrowing owls are listed as state-threatened and are at risk due to habitat loss. To monitor and conserve them, Audubon of the Western Everglades and UF/IFAS created and manage a citizen science program named Owl Watch, Smith said. The program supports burrowing owl research and conservation through outreach and long-term monitoring.

Under the guidance of UF/IFAS graduate students, more than 40 volunteers monitor the burrows on the island each week throughout the nesting season, Smith said. In 2017, volunteers recorded 169 pairs of burrowing owls nesting in Marco Island, of which 70 percent successfully gave birth, producing 317 fledglings.

“Over time, this monitoring program will allow researchers to track population changes and measure impacts to burrowing owls as Florida’s human population continues to grow,” said Smith, who works under the direction of Raoul Boughton, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of wildlife ecology and conservation.


By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303,

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.



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Posted: April 18, 2018

Category: UF/IFAS
Tags: Air Potato, Backyard Beetles, Burrowing Owls, Citizen Science, Earth Day, Horseshoe Crabs, Ken Gioeli, News, Raoul Boughton, Savanna Barry, William Lester

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