Diary of a Citizen Scientist with Sharman Apt Russell
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Hank: Hello and welcome to the SciShow talk show, it's that day on SciShow when we talk to interesting people about interesting stuff. Today that interesting person is Sharman Apt Russell who is a nature writer, has been writing books for a long time and just won the John Burrows award for.. eh, what is that award for?
Sharman: Well they call it distinguished nature writing,
H: Oh well that's pretty good.
S: Becuase it's an award that started in 1926, so it's a little stuffy.
H: Oh! Old school.
S: Yeah! Old School.
H: So you're now distinguished, it happened. Congratulations.
S: That's right it was bestowed on me. I'm really grateful, thank you.
H: You are a writer an professor?
S: Yep, I'm a professor of writing, I'm ehh a long term writer and teacher of writing. But I write about nature, I write about Science, I write about anything that interests me, that tends to be nature and science.
H: I have become kind of a professional writer in my life, now, which is wonderful. I also am basically, I haven't taken a science course in a long long time, heven't practiced science in a long long time but I eh. It's very cool that you have found ways to mix those things. And this book it is called Diary of a Citizen Scientist, and its about your work as a citizen scientist and sort of general work as a citizen scientist.
S: Its about my work and its an overview of the field, because it's relatively new and I think it's really exciting and so I wanted to give the breadth and depth of the field right now. But I also wanted to talk about my, you know, project and how it got me outside more and how it got me more engaged and how it entered into my life in a wonderful way.
H: So when did that start for you?
S: Well I started doing citizen science over, you know, a decade ago.
Banding birds over at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, different national and state programs, but for this project, I wanted to go more vertical. I mean, I really wanted to go a little bit in depth, so I e-mailed an entymologist who's a big advocate of citizen science, and I said, well, you know, what would you study? What could I start looking at personally? So he e-mailed me within like, 15 nanoseconds and he said, I want you to go do this and this and this and this. So he just sort of set me off on this path of pursuing the particular life history of a tiger beetle in New Mexico.
H: So he had a specific beetle in mind that was poorly studied?
S: Yes, absolutely. So he, my entymologist mentor, is the co-author of a field guide to tiger beetles of the United States and Canada.
H: How many tiger--are there lots of different types of tiger beetles?
S: Lots of them.
H: You're gonna have to (?~2:55)
S: 2600 species.
S: And under the Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle is the phrase "larval biology unknown" and that's what he wanted me to fill in. I mean, I was just one of his thousand grad students that he has out in the world doing this work for him, so he said, you know, go find this beetle, go raise it up, go find out what the larva look like, go find out where the females go to lay their eggs, go find out anything you can because--
H: When you say you were a grad student, what do you mean by that?
S: It's just that, in the world of citizen science, scientists are beginning to see that they have this huge resource of people out there. They're interested, they're engaged, they're often educated, they're healthy, and they're willing to go out and act in the service of that particular scientist's research project. So suddenly, they do have a thousand graduate students out there in the country collecting data.
H: So did he know that you were a nature writer or did he think you were just some--
S: Yes. Yes, yes.
H: It wouldn't be as easy for just someone else to e-mail someone and be like, hey, I want to do research for you. Tell me what to do.
S: You know, it's--one would think no, but I'm going to say yes. Not as easy, obviously, but first there are lots of constructed organized projects in which you already do that, so a scientist who wants to get a lot of information about monarch migration or about how to classify certain galaxies or about wolverines here in Montana, they're gonna set up a citizen science project and then they're gonna set up a website and so you can enter it through that, but it's surprising how scientists love talking about their work and citizen science is kind of, its cut through some of the barriers. They're beginning to see that the amateur out there, you know, can really help them a lot, especially if they have a hundred of them.
S: So, I think, odds are, if you contact a scientist and you are credible and you have, you know, an expertise to offer, even if it's just, "I've got a really good field guide, I can go into the bitterroots and I can look for this plant that you're looking for", you're gonna get a surprisingly warm welcome. 75% of the time, not everyone.
H: So send four e-mails.
S: Exactly. Yeah, yeah.
H: So, take me through some of your experience with this particular tiger beetle.
S: Yeah. You know, a tiger beetle, they're everywhere, they're here, they're in all ecosystems, they're very small. You hardly even know they're there, they're like little skitters around the ground. They're beautifully colored so they're very pretty, and they're fierce. Tiger beetle is the fastest insect in the world, (?~5:46) can go 5 miles an hour. They have these huge mandibles and they have these huge eyes, and they see their prey and they run after their prey and they grab them and then they drench them in these digestive juices that turns the victim into this kind of--
H: It was all reminding me of a tiger up to that point.
S: Oh, it is, exactly, exactly.
H: Less like, excreting digestive juices.
S: No, they just, they just blaah, they (?~6:12) and then they have this mouth part and they suck up the puree and so, that's how they live their lives.
S: Just ferocious predators. So what's interesting about the tiger beetle is that the larva, and then, you know, they mate, they lay their eggs, and these tiny, tiny larva immediately dig a little burrow and the larva also have these mandibles, they have these heavy heads and they're also completely predacious, and they come to the top of their burrow and they just kinda wait there. They have a little hook in the back of their little grub bodies that anchor them into the tunnel, and then they kind of lunge out at any prey that comes by so they're like these, you know, Bee Movie monsters, lunging out.
H: So you got--you grew some of these things' larva?
S: Yes, that's exactly--yeah, I did, I grew their larva, because you have--
H: You just, like, put a few of like, you know, a male and a female in a tank...
S: Sprinkle water, you know. Well, first you have to go catch them. So this is a Type-A, high energy beetle. I mean, you--it's really hard to catch. I mean, you have to have this kind of Tai-Chi thing and you kind of creep and creep and you get as close as you can and then you have to lunge and jump and throw your net right down and then they're so small they escape out the net and then, and I'm not very good at any of that. It's like, I was bad at team sports, I was bad at catching tiger beetles, but, you know, you learn. So, a couple hours on the riverbank, there's a thousand tiger beetles, so I would end up getting about ten a couple hours. You take 'em home, put 'em in your terrarium, and I was probably, you know, there's so many obscure insects, you can be the first to do anything. I was actually inspired by this entymologist that said, "You could spend a week studying an obscure insect and you would then know more than anyone else on the planet," and that's true, you know, that's more true.
Took me a year 'cause I'm a slow learner. But anyone else could probably take a week. So you have the tiger beetle, and you put them in the terrarium and then they mate and you don't have to do any encouragement.
H: That's what they do.
S: Play nice music, soft lights, nothing, it's like, they are ready to go. They love doing that, they love mating. So they're mating, mating, mating, mating and then they--the female (?~8:29) laid her eggs, and that was the first time someone had gotten that to happen. I think this was beginner's luck for this species, and then the larva burrowed down and then the kind of icky part is you have to feed their larva.
H: Yeah, that doesn't sound so icky.
S: Well, you have to cut up mini-mealworms.
H: Oh, sure, sure.
S: You have order mini-mealworms, and then they're too big for the larva, 'cause the larva are so small, so you have to kind of cut them up and put them on a little forcep and then put them in the little hole and the larva are going 'yay, yay!' and they're lunging out and they're grabbing their bit of mini-mealworm, and then they get bigger. Tiger beetles have three instars, just like, you know--
H: The larva or the beetles?
S: The larva. Just like caterpillars and other larva, they go through three times, so they eat and eat and eat, they molt, bigger size, they emerge their tunnel, and you wait for them to do that three times, and then they, you know, form the pupa, and out of that, the adult emerges.
H: Hmm. (?~9:34)
H: That's, I mean, that's so--that's--it's remarkable that you can add a new thing to our--to humanity's body of knowledge of the world.
S: It is, it is.
H: And it's also just like, it's--I mean, people--I mean, everybody has a hobby.
S: Yes, yes.
H: And what a great hobby to have.
S: It is, absolutely, absolutely.
H: What do you think of the sort of state of citizen science in general?
We talk about it more and more on SciShow.
S: Yeah, yeah.
H: There's always an interesting citizen science project going on.
S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
H: Things that you can get involved in without even leaving your house, but also like, you know, bird surveys, that's been going on for decades.
S: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I--well, I'm really a cheerleader. I really think it's amazing, and the thing is that, it is relatively new. You know, one of the biggest citizen science projects is Galaxy Zoo, they have, you know, close to a million people have participated in this online program helping catalog galaxies, which has resulted in some real science, because they give the astronomers the sample sizes they need. That just started in 2007. I don't think we even can realize how young citizen science is, you know, Cornell Lab, you know, which you mentioned is, you know, 200,000 volunteers. It hasn't been around that long. So I know citizen science projects are going through periphery, I know there's a lot of them in every town I go to. What I think I am most excited about is how it segues into environmental activism. A lot of people are documenting climate change, they're going out and looking when plants are flowering, when plants are fruiting, when insects are emerging, when the birds are coming. They're starting to see the effects of climate change. There's a lot of programs where you document a basic species. A lot of programs where you do water monitoring and air monitoring, and so it's creating this whole, you know, growing population of people who are really aware of the natural world and are really aware of the changes, and the difference is they're not scientists. They're citizen scientists, so they're--we, unless we're willing to go to the table of public policy and say, aha, I worked so hard last week and I got all this data. Now what are you gonna do with it? You know, we kind of demand more action based on our research, on our data, on our information, 'cause we're citizens, too, and I don't mean citizens of the country.
Citizens of a place, citizens of a community, you know, citizens of this project we got involved in. So scientists don't tend to get very political.
H: It can be like a cultural problem. It can be a problem for their work, you know, like, depending on where they're funding comes from and like, you sort of want to stay apolitical, you want to you know, be--
S: Exactly, and I'm not funded by NASA.
S: Hey, I'm, you know, NASA's accountable to me. NASA does wonderful citizen science projects, you know, I like NASA.
H: What do you think it is that makes people like, drives people to get out there and do this?
S: Well, there's a lot of "I became a dentist but I really loved botany in high school", you know, "I made my money as an accountant, but boy, astronomy is something," so there's a lot of kind of this transformation or this new career that can happen at any time in your life. So in a way, I just think it's the human beings are, you know, we're renaissanced, you know, we're multiple things, and in a way, making money in this society has kind of put us in a box, like, you're this, you're this, you're this, you're this, but we're actually a lot of things. Citizen science lets you go be a lepidopterist or go be a botanist or go be a, you know, a person--an archaeologist, or--and kind of at any time, you know. So, I just think we're naturally curious and kind of creative and in love with the world around us, and we need more ways to try to engage in that.
H: That's--yeah. Great. Let's have a visit. Do you wanna have a visit?
S: Yes, sure.
H: Okay, we're gonna have Jessi come in with some kind of animal.
S: Okay, great.
H: It's been kept a secret from both of us.
S: Alright, yes, right, good.
H: Hey! I love how you just appear out of nowhere!
J: Can I have like a 'pshhhh!'?
H: You're like a genie.
So you brought us a coconut.
J: Coconut! It looks kind of like a tortoise, doesn't it?
H: It's not.
J: With a little patty cake.
H: So I assume there's something inside of the coconut?
J: There is.
H: Probably something a little creepy. Usually there's something a little creepy inside of a coconut in my experience.
J: If I usually don't have it, we're gonna do like a reveal, yeah. So she's under here, she's really comfortable, she likes kind of burrowing in there.
H: Ohh, you're so big!
J: It's a spider. This is Fluffy. Fluffy is--do you know what kind of spider she is?
H: A tarantula?
J: Yeah, yep, she is a Chilean Rose Tarantula, come here, pretty girl.
H: What do you know about their life cycle? How do they mate and larva?
J: I know lots about it. Lots about it. But did you notice how I picked her up?
H: From the side?
J: From the side and very gently. I just slid my hand right underneath her. I didn't try to grab her and pick her up. I'm not gonna pet her, we're not gonna touch her, we're just going to gently be the ground underneath her. So, I like the tiger beetle because they are very similar to tarantulas in how they eat, 'cause these guys also--
H: Just vomit up their digestive enzymes?
J: Uh-huh, yeah, here's my stomach in you. You do all the work, and then they have a sucking mechanism, so then they expand their stomach on the inside and suck up all the juices and then they digest it. That is how they--they don't really have chewing mouth parts at all. They have, of course, the eight legs. They have--and then they have these two, so a lot of times people are looking at them and they're like, wait, they have 10 legs! They don't. These two in the front, they're called pedipalps.
H: Are you sure--They look like legs.
J: I am sure, Hank. Those are--the pedipalps are really neat because they are kind of like, I guess you would say their hands. They use those to like, feel and move around food and do that sort of thing, and then if you look right in the front of their face there, you see two more kind of appendage type things.
H: Yeah, yep, those--yep.
J: Those are their fangs, that's where their fangsa re, so those two--
H: They're like hairy fangs?
J: Yes, yeah, they're covered all in this hair.
J: So underneath there--
H: (?~16:09) 'cause they're not mammals.
J: Exactly, so it's not hair, it's actually (?~16:11), so it's made up of a special protein, and that makes up their entire exoskeleton, and so that's kind of what identifies a tarantula as a tarantula, is they have all these--this hair on them, and they have specialized hair right here on their abdomen. So they're made--tarantulas--all spiders, are made up of two pieces, the (?~16:30) and the abdomen, but right there, that abdomen has urticating--now I say urticating, some people say urticating, but I say urticating--the urticating hairs, and those hairs back there are actually used as a defense mechanism.
H: So they're like stabby? Like cactus swords?
J: So if you were to touch them, they would come off onto your skin, but--so like, porcupine, right, you touch a porcupine, it'll come off. But unlike porcupine, these guys can actually shoot their bristles, and so you can say urticating hairs or urticating bristles, 'cause they're not real hair, they're actually bristles, and so they'll take their back legs, they'll turn around when they're really mad at you or trying to just defend themselves.
S: Yeah, so pointing it towards him.
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just go whack whack whack whack whack, you know, like, the--it's called kicking.
H: Just flick them off?
J: It's called kicking, yeah, they'll kick their bristles or they'll also just kind of rub it and it'll mist around in the air.
H: Why is the abdomen so big and juicy looking like a delicious kiwi fruit?
J: Morsel--kiwi fruit?! Yeah, okay, yeah. It's huge because well, she's a female.
J: And so females are gonna have much larger abdomens than the males. So the males are gonna have to be quicker and they don't live as long, there's the same reason why they don't live as long and they have to be quicker because the females often will eat them during the mating process. But these guys have to have a big abdomen so that they can store all of the eggs inside there. Yeah, so if she were to be upset--would you like to hold her? I was gonna tell you like, what you would--some people are very nervous around spiders, but I think--I find it easier to be around an animal when I know when they're communicating when they're upset.
So I know if I'm making them mad. So she--just nice, flat hand, she'll go right onto your hand there. And she can sense the difference in temperature, so she's like, wait, that's new, that's new ground.
H: Oh, you're not that heavy.
J: Very light. They can get much bigger than this. Not, not, not Chilean Rose Tarantulas, but--
J: Yeah, in general. So if she were upset, she would do a couple things. One, you might see her abdomen actually quivering, not like--moving with my hand.
H: Right, (?~18:35).
J: So she might quiver a little bit, and then she would rise up these first--her pedipalps and the first set of legs there, and she'd be showing off her fangs and some of them will actually, like, rub their fangs together, going like hehehe, I have terrible venom under here, and that's gonna make them look big and scary, and some of them will like, slap their front feet down as well, being like, I will fight you if you get closer, and if you keep messing with them, then they'll turn around and they'll kick those hairs off. So the Chilean Rose Tarantula is a very docile species, they're more--they're gonna run away from you, they're gonna be like, just don't mess with me, I'm gonna go the other direction. They're not super aggressive, like the Goliath Bird-Eating Tarantula, which is quite aggressive.
H: Does it actually eat birds?
J: It can, yes. Yep. They're like--they can get 12 inches. Yeah.
H: That's--that's not real.
J: It's huge.
H: How do they even--?
J: So this is about the average size for a female Chilean Rose. A lot of people keep these guys as pets, and I think it's really interesting--would you like to try and hold her?
J: I think it's really interesting, the citizen science part, because these guys haven't been very widely studied in the wild. They are basically just captured and taken into the pet trade or eaten as a delicacy.
H: Yes, that kiwi fruit on the back there is tasty.
J: It's delicious. Ooh, and she's opening up. It feels a little weird when it gets up to your wrist, it tickles a little bit more.
S: Well, I'm afraid she's going to fall off, but that's probably silly, because I know she won't.
J: She won't.
S: I've seen her velcro legs.
J: So you can tip her sideways and she holds on really well.
J: So you can see, she's moving these things back here, so those are another set of little appendages, do you know what those are?
H: What? No. Does she have butt legs? They're called butt legs. Scientific term.
J: Official. Do you know what they are?
S: I don't.
J: Those are her spinnerets. That give you a clue?
S: Ohh, okay, yes.
H: Ohh, so they're involved in the web-making.
J: Yeah, and you can actually see a little bit of the web stuck to her little hairs there. So, those are spinnerets and they produce the silk and it's a liquid, and once it hits the air, it becomes solidified into this silky, thread-like substance, and then she will make a little web. Now, these guys aren't known for making webs, like, you know, Charlotte's Web, they are very--they actually are very delicate, they can break in between there, so they don't like being up high. They are ground-dwelling, or terrestrial tarantulas, and they like burrowing in the wild, so they have been researched enough that we do know some of their natural behavior in the wild. So they like to burrow, and then they'll line their burrow with their web, and they don't like really make a big web out front, but they do put, like, little tendrils of silk out there, kind of like a trip wire, and so if a little insect or small lizard or small mammal walks by there and they, you know, trips it, and they feel it, they'll run out there and they'll inject it with venom. They'll wait foro it to be digested and then they will slurp up the inside of that cricket smoothie.
H: Well, uh, Fluffy.
J: Fluffy. Fluffy!
H: Thank you for coming today. It was a pleasure to have you. I'm gonna put you on my Snapchat right after this is over. Jessi has a YouTube channel where you get to see how she handles having so many different animals in your life.
J: Yeah. I had a dream last night that we rescued 15 animals in one day, but we don't--
H: It was an unpleasant--
H: It was an unpleasant--
J: It was--it was a little stressful. We have over 80 animals, and it's fun.
H: Yeah, yeah. So you can find out all about that at YouTube.com/AnimalWondersMontana. This is Sharman Apt Russell who wrote the Diary of A Citizen Scientist, it's available now. Thank you so much for coming in.
S: Yeah, it was a pleasure.
H: Sharing some of your thoughts and perspective, it was great.
S: Got to meet Fluffy, and you, too, but, you know.
J: Fluffy steals the show.
S: Yeah, he does kinda steal the show.
H: And thank you for watching this episode of SciShow: Talk Show. If you wanna watch others, there are lots to watch. We have a playlist and if you wanna subscribe, you can do that at YouTube.com/SciShow.
H: When a successful drone uncouples from that queen, his penis and some of his abdominal tissues are ripped out of his body and he dies.