Texas Nature Trackers program taps amateur observers to help scientists catalog wildlife
Tania Homayoun has a tough job. As a biologist in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Diversity Program, she's tasked with protecting every plant and animal species that calls Texas home — from whooping cranes to freshwater mussels.
Fortunately for her, Texans from every corner of the state are stepping up to help by finding and photographing wildlife through a program called Texas Nature Trackers, which is open to anyone.
Texas Nature Trackers is part of a growing international movement to involve the public in scientific research known as “citizen science” or “community science.” Researchers and community members across Texas have started projects focused on plant pollination, air pollution and even plastic pellets that wash up on beaches.
Homayoun said these partnerships between scientists and the public can lead to important breakthroughs.
“We can’t do what we do by ourselves,” she said. “We all have a role to play in being stewards of our natural environment.”
Participants have collected observations from more than half a million different plants and animals. For Texas Parks and Wildlife, the data are invaluable real-time tools to monitor the most imperiled species in the state.
Texas Nature Trackers started 20 years ago with a simple aim: to allow members of the public to share wildlife observations with the state’s biologists.
“We want to create an opportunity for people to be able to get out into Texas nature and share their observations of native plants and animals,” Homayoun said. “And then we also want to be able to put those data to use.”
For biologists like Homayoun, knowing where species appear throughout Texas is a crucial first step in protecting wildlife because it allows them to understand which species are rare and which are in decline.
Historically, gathering this data was largely up to TPWD staff and contractors, who would spend hours every month in the field looking under rocks for an endangered frog or mist-netting for rare warblers. Partnering with the public to collect data through Texas Nature Trackers allows the Wildlife Diversity Program to build finer-scale maps of where species are throughout Texas than the department's 40-person team could ever do on its own.
“When we have more eyes on the ground, we're able to answer questions that were question marks before,” Homayoun said.
For instance, a few years ago a doorbell camera in Leander, just 30 minutes north of Austin, captured a mountain lion walking across a suburban neighborhood lawn. Texas Nature Trackers' sleuths later found a footprint of the cat nearby and uploaded it to the project.
“It's one thing to have someone call up and say, ‘Oh, I thought I saw a mountain lion.’ But when you can take that recording and send it to a biologist and say, ‘It was recorded here, it was recorded at this time, and here is the data,’ that's huge,” Homayoun said.
For instance, if the Texas Department of Transportation is considering a road-widening project, it first consults the Parks and Wildlife Department’s database to see whether any protected species might live near the proposed project. Some of the information in that database comes from observations made by Texas Nature Trackers.
“Maybe it's your data that are in this database that can help everybody involved make more informed decisions,” Homayoun said.
The Texas Nature Trackers program has projects focused on all kinds of wildlife, from parrots to caterpillars. Most of these projects use the website and mobile app iNaturalist, which allows anyone to upload photos of wildlife to a global repository where users work together to identify different species.
Jon McIntyre is one of the most prolific volunteers with Texas Nature Trackers. He has added tens of thousands of observations to the database and at times spends hours every day uploading photos of lizards and slugs. His single-day record for uploads to the project is more than 500.
“It’s pretty much ruined my life now,” he said with a laugh. “Everything I see, I take a picture of.”
McIntyre’s dedication has led to some remarkable finds. For instance, he said he found five or six moth species that had never been seen in Texas and two moths that had never been documented in the United States.
Douglas Martin, a researcher at the University of Texas, was so impressed by McIntyre’s observations that he added McIntyre to his lab’s scientific research permit so McIntyre could send Martin data for the UT collection.
“That was pretty cool,” McIntyre said. “I bet I’ve given them at least a hundred different species of fish.”
But as prolific a volunteer as he is, McIntyre’s contributions are a fraction of the efforts of all 20,000 volunteers who have joined Texas Nature Trackers and contributed almost 600,000 observations to the program.
Homayoun encourages all who are interested in Texas nature to get involved in the program, even if they think their observations aren’t very interesting.
While the project focuses on protecting at-risk species, observations of something as widespread as a squirrel are beneficial. Observations from Texas Nature Trackers can serve as an early warning signal.
“What's common today may not be tomorrow,” Homayoun said. “It can be one fungal infection that tips the balance within a very short period of time for things to go into a tailspin with their populations.”