BAR HARBOR, MAINE - The National Science Foundation has awarded $250,000 to the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Schoodic Education and Research Center Institute (SERC) for a new project that will involve visitors to the park in hands-on scientific research.
"This partnership brings together three institutions with strong commitments to research, education, and conservation, and will give a new high-tech dimension to 'citizen science' in Maine," says Kevin Strange, director of MDIBL. "It will serve as a model for new collaborations between research institutions and national parks across the United States."
The project, called "Pathway to BioTrails," will involve members of the public in monitoring animal and plant species in Acadia National Park and Frenchman Bay using a genetic technique called DNA barcoding. DNA barcoding can help verify that an organism has been identified accurately by comparing its DNA to DNA from specimens previously identified by experts.
Without DNA barcoding, scientists and non-scientists alike can have difficulty identifying which species a given specimen may belong to. That difficulty not only limits the scale and accuracy of potential research projects, it also forces many citizen science projects to spend more energy on species identification and less on the actual scientific and educational goals of the project. DNA barcoding can help validate the tentative identifications made by citizen scientists and can increase both the scientific and educational value of citizen science projects.
The BioTrails project will ultimately offer a range of citizen science projects organized around hiking, cycling and sea-kayaking trails to some of the 2.5 million people who visit Acadia National Park each year. The trails will serve as consistent observation points where specimens and other data can be collected. Research scientists at MDIBL, NPS and the SERC Institute will use this information to address important ecological research questions, such as the relationship between climate change and changes in biodiversity.
"This project enables visitors, research scientists and park staff to work together to help assess the impact of environmental changes on the flora and fauna of Acadia," says Acadia National Park Superintendant Sheridan Steele. "We are enthusiastic about creating a new paradigm for educating our visitors about the fragile nature of our ecosystems and engaging them directly in this work."
The grant from the National Science Foundation will help pilot the BioTrails concept, generating essential new knowledge, experience and tools for using DNA barcoding in citizen science projects. The two-year initial project will feature four, five-day citizen science events - two in 2013 and two in 2014 - that will help build and use DNA barcoding 'libraries' for a selection of Acadia's invertebrate animal species. Volunteers for each of the citizen science events will be recruited through education and outreach channels already established by MDIBL, the NPS and the SERC Institute. Volunteers will also be recruited online through the SciStarter website (scistarter.com).
"Having volunteers actively engaged in meaningful science is an important factor not only in developing a deeper appreciation for nature, " says Michael Soukup, President of SERC Institute, "but also in creating a greater understanding of the scientific process and in providing the opportunity to observe and discover."
The principal investigator on the project, MDIBL scientist Karen James, hopes that the BioTrails concept, once tested in Acadia National Park, can be expanded to other national parks and long-distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail. "A network of local, regional and national BioTrails programs, helping citizen scientists contribute to ecological questions of national and international importance," said James, "could aid in monitoring and managing wildlife in a rapidly changing world."
MDIBL is a 114-year-old independent, non-profit research institution located adjacent to Acadia National Park on the shore of Frenchman Bay in Salisbury Cove. MDIBL's scientists and students study regeneration and aging, and use comparative model systems to explore how organisms adapt to their environment and how environment and genetics are related.
Acadia National Park has a long history of scientific inquiry and public education. The park and other partner organizations in the area hold one of the largest concentrations of high-quality historical records in North America, describing long-term dynamics in the flora, fauna, air and water quality, climate, land use, and other characteristics of the region. The BioTrails project will add to this treasury of critical information and inform future research on the region's present and future ecology.
The SERC Institute was created in 2004 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the Schoodic Education and Research Center in Acadia National Park. The mission of SERC Institute is to guide present and future generations to greater understanding and respect for nature by providing research and learning opportunities through its outstanding setting, unique coastal Maine facilities, and innovative partnership programs.