Project Contact: Ms. Heather Prestridge, Curator, Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections/Ecology and Conservation Biology, Agriculture and Life Sciences
Project Title: Lights Out Texas: Team Based Approach to Integrating University Research with Citizen Science Conservation Efforts
- Ms. Heather Prestridge, Curator, Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections/Ecology and Conservation Biology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, email@example.com.
- Dr. Gary Voelker, Professor and Curator of Birds, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Dr. Sarah Hamer, Associate Professor/Director, Schubot Center for Avian Health, Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, email@example.com
- Dr. Heather Thakar, Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Arts & Sciences (Liberal Arts), firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mr. Keith Andringa, PhD Candidate, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, email@example.com
- Dr. Perry Barboza, Professor, Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Agriculture and Life Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mr. Simon Burton, Citizen Scientist, Texas Master Naturalist, email@example.com
- Dr. Norm Dronen, Professor, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org
Anthropology, Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Schubot Center for Avian Health, Wildlife and Fisheries Management
Agriculture and Life Sciences, Arts & Sciences (Liberal Arts), Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
External Organizations Represented:
Texas Master Naturalist, Brazos Valley Chapter Texan by Nature, Audubon Texas, Rio Brazos Audubon
Join our team to closely interact at the crossroads of museum sciences, conservation policy, science communication and citizen science! Within the project, students and faculty involved will seek to develop a pipeline for bird specimens and data entering the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections via surveys for birds that are casualties of building strikes during peak migration. Making these specimens and their data available to the research community at large will involve specimen preparation, data digitization, curation of specimens, summarization, and relaying of data back to the major metropolitan areas in Texas where Lights Out chapters are operating. Students should be prepared to operate in two of these interwoven areas: Museum Sciences; Science Communication; Conservation Policy Development; and/or Citizen Science.
Student Team Member Spots:
16 (10 UG, 4 Grad, 2 Professional or Doctoral)
Texas is globally important for birds. 1 of ca. every 3 birds migrating through the U.S. in spring, and 1 of ca. every 4 birds migrating through the US in the fall pass through Texas; this translates to ca. two billion birds traveling through the state annually. As such, protecting birds in Texas promotes conservation of bird populations across the Americas. However, U.S. bird populations are declining rapidly, with 25% of the overall population lost since 1970. Contributing to this loss is annual mortality (ca. 1 billion birds) from collisions with buildings and structures, which primarily affects migratory species. Most of these deaths are the direct result of attraction to human-generated light pollution, and subsequent disorientation leads to fatal collisions. Birds are essential to our planet’s ecology and local economies. Birds provide ecosystem services, act as benchmarks for environmental health, and connect people to the natural world. In the Rio Grande Valley alone, Texas A&M found that nature tourism – which is dominated by bird watching – contributes $300 million to the economy and supports 4,407 jobs annually.
In fall of 2020, a small group of environmentally concerned citizens established a “Lights Out for the Birds” project in Dallas. Partners from the Perot Museum and Texas Conservation Alliance have garnered support from the Mayor of Dallas and former First Lady Laura Bush. Building owners, businesses, developers and homeowners were encouraged to help protect migrating birds by turning off non-essential nighttime lighting on buildings and other structures from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. during peak migration in Spring and Fall. To document the effectiveness of the program, volunteers surveyed assigned routes each morning to check for fatalities. They recorded where they found strike victims (dead birds) and saved their carcasses for future integration into the Collection of Birds at Texas A&M University.
The Lights Out program has quickly grown to a state-wide effort to include programs in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Harlingen, Houston, and San Antonio. Each city program includes a cross-cutting selection of representatives: City Manager, Sustainability Officer, Audubon chapter, local museum, local wildlife rehabilitator. Statewide representatives include NGOs Audubon Texas, Texan by Nature, Defenders of Wildlife, Texas Conservation Alliance, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC).
The potential impact of the program is exciting and important for wildlife, and the team has a unique opportunity to influence policy, engage with citizen scientists, and opportunistically utilize casualties in research projects across the University and beyond. With a potential of generating 6,000 specimens per year for the BRTC, we have an enormous opportunity to integrate University research with citizen science while engaging and enhancing the experiences of our students. Our cross-disciplinary university partners will be able to use the specimens for a multitude of projects that involve hands on student training in research, museum techniques, and science communication. From our efforts to maximize research opportunities on these birds, conservation partners across the state will be able to relay real results back to their city partners and decision makers to influence policy and participation in Lights Out programs.
The BRTC specifically aims to:
• Maximize specimen utility and availability in the research arena through University collaborations, and through the broader avian research community.
• Foster a goal of informing local policy by evaluating the success of Lights Out programs, and communicating the results (city-specific and overall data) back to member cities, for incorporation into their conservation and citizen science efforts.
• Centralize bird strike data for uploaded to national databases (e.g., VertNet, BirdMapper), for open access use across the avian research and citizen science communities.
• Expose undergraduate students to these conservation issues, which will provide hands-on data collection, valuable conservation experience and connections for future employment.
Within the natural history collections community, the concept of an “extended specimen” elevates and expands the physical specimen with an augmented suite of digitized data including genotypic, phenotypic, and environmental data types. Parentchild relationships that exist between hosts and parasites, deposited in different collections, are an increasingly common link that is being made across databases. Our natural history collections community is currently coming together to form an Extended Specimens Network (ESN) to provide these interconnected datasets to a broad base of users. A recent report from the Biological Collections Network states the utility of the ESN as the following “The ESN will allow researchers to explore the rules that govern how organisms, grow, diversify and interact, and enable scientists to ask more nuanced research questions specific to how environmental change and human activities may affect those rules. The engaging vouchered specimen, coupled with the open access ESN, and immediate and relevant science resulting from the ESN, can play a unique role in promoting STEM education, engaging citizen scientists, and empowering a scientifically literate society. The specimen and the associated data provide a relatable and engaging entry point to participate in iterative data driven science, learn core data literacy skills, and build open, transdisciplinary collaboration.” (https://bcon.aibs.org/wpcontent/uploads/2019/04/Extending-Biodiversity-Collections-Full-Report.pdf). We would also note that by having interconnected databases and ESN’s, researchers from across the scientific community that rely on specimens for their research will in many cases be able to use Lights Out specimens, rather than collecting their own material. This will minimize the impact on wildlife, via the reduction of general collecting.
A major goal of our proposal is to establish and foster an ESN at TAMU. In general, most individual faculty operate in their own research “silo”, relative to other faculty across the University. The opportunities provided by the Lights Out specimens will allow us to integrate individually operating faculty silos into collaborative efforts; by extension, graduate and undergraduate students recruited to this project as well as existing students of individual faculty will be exposed to new innovative research areas. Our participating members include a cross-section of faculty that are currently utilizing specimens independently in their research programs.
A primary outcome of this project will be the development of a sampling protocol and pipeline for specimens entering the BRTC through the statewide Lights Out program. Currently, we prepare specimens to our standards (our “silo”): a study skin and tissue sample. Parasites, blood and feathers are rarely sampled. We will seek innovations from across our group that promote efficient preparation while maximizing preserved material to enhance collaboration. Our workflow protocol will be disseminated to the museum community.
Migratory birds have received increasing research attention due to their ability to transport parasites (e.g., malaria, lice, ticks) and previous studies have shown that migrants may import species of South and Central American parasites and pathogens. There remain considerable knowledge gaps in our understanding of parasites to include their effects on hosts, host–parasite relationships, and the effects of ecological parameters on distributions and relationships in the New World. In addition to addressing these knowledge gaps with these birds, the future spread of these parasites can be modeled, with further investigations to understand the process of species invasion and potential future human or animal health consequences. These specimens can also be utilized in isotope analyses and microplastic assessments.
Results will be disseminated via student presentations and symposia and peer reviewed journals. Interactions with policy and citizen science partners via collection of morphological data, feather replacement and body condition opens our project citizen scientists. We will utilize community partner volunteers to collect data and communicate back to their local communities the importance of this conservation effort.
Benefits to Students:
Our cross-discipline team of students will benefit from their participation in numerous ways including:
• Fulfillment of internship credits (484/684)
• Increased understanding and expertise in specimen preparation
• Increased appreciation of other disciplines that utilize natural history specimens
• Opportunities for collaboration with peers and expert faculty; possible authorship on manuscripts
• Training in science communication
• Training and experience in public speaking
• Novel skills in museum techniques, training that is not available elsewhere at the University
What would be the ideal composition of team members for this project? What majors, disciplines, skills, backgrounds, or perspectives would you like to have on the team?
Students from other departments, colleges and schools (e.g., Biology, Communications, Bush School of Government and Public Service) will be strongly considered for inclusion as we recognize that each discipline brings unique skills. From an ECCB perspective, we expect to recruit students with hands-on experience preparing specimens for the BRTC (we have several such students each semester). In addition to this highly technical skill, their understanding of the importance of biodiversity science, conservation and discovery is a cornerstone for the evaluation of the effectiveness of Lights Out. From this pool, we anticipate recruiting several into ECCB research faculty labs to pursue questions related to parasites and isotope analysis.
Similarly, students from CVM will provide a research perspective related to parasites and disease ecology. These teams will work in sync with the students from RWFM, who will view the project through the lens of applied management. As such, RWFM students will be critical in successfully communicating our findings in a manner that can influence policy across the expansive urban partner communities. Critical to policy communication will be providing RWFM students with a foundational knowledge of the basic research questions we will address.
Our team will also include external organizations: We have existing robust partnerships with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Texas as well as several Universities. These include: Audubon Texas (with multiple chapters across the state), National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Big Bend Conservation Alliance, Witte Museum, Houston Museum of Natural History, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, The Nature Conservancy, Houston Zoo, Gulf Coast Bird Conservancy, Hill Country Alliance, Texan by Nature, Rice University, San Angelo State University and the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University.
Preferred software, program, or machine expertise:
Knowledge of basic MS applications, data visualization, and graphic design would be useful. We will provide hands-on training in proper museum specimen preparation.
What process or guidelines will determine which students are being paid (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) and which aren’t, along with estimates of amounts and methods (hourly, end of semester, etc.).
All of our students will receive a stipend for their participation in the project. Graduate students will receive $1,000 for the year. Undergraduates will receive $850 for the year. Other credits are described above. Opportunities to be included in peer reviewed publications and outreach events will be plentiful.
Will the project require travel?