Low-tech scientists are using their eyes, ears, and intuition to make important discoveries
A fancy new satellite? A particle accelerator? Not required
Headline-making scientific discoveries and innovations seem to be increasingly high-tech. Scientists edit genes, 3D print organs, discover new elementary particles with massive accelerators, and search for exoplanets with multi-million dollar telescopes.
But you don’t always have to travel to the ends of the earth or have access to state-of-the-art technology to make cool discoveries. Equally fascinating research projects are underway that use nothing fancier than a smartphone or the powers of human observation and curiosity.
In a recent paper, a research team from the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph have reported a surprising discovery in Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin has been the site of wildlife research projects for 75 years. But even after all this time, it seems that the park still holds plenty of secrets.
Ecologists discovered that purple pitcher plants in the park, long believed to subsist on small invertebrates like insects and spiders, also prey on young salamanders. “Anybody could have come across it,” says ecologist Patrick Moldowan, one of the study’s co-authors. “We might think that all the questions are answered and all the neat observations have already been collected but here we are in 2019 and there’s something new and exciting right in our very own backyard.”
At first, researchers thought that this might be a freak occurrence, but after surveying dozens of pitcher plants, they found that this was actually quite common. Moldowan and his colleagues found salamanders in about 20% of the purple pitcher plants they surveyed, indicating that salamanders may be an important part of these plants’ diet, helping them survive in low nutrient soils.
Moldowan says that he doesn't believe this is a new phenomenon; instead, it's simply an issue of timing. He says that field research on carnivorous plant diets usually takes place in the spring and early summer, whereas the juvenile salamanders – the ones that are at risk for becoming plant snacks – don't emerge from their aquatic habitats until late summer or fall.
Another example of fascinating low-tech experiments is the work done on American crow cognition by researchers at the University of Washington. The research team, headed by avian ecologist John Marzluff, was the first to experimentally demonstrate that wild crows can not only recognize human faces, but also remember the threatening ones for nearly three years.
Other researchers were also able to demonstrate social learning in wild crows – in other words, crows were able to learn about threats by observing the behavior of other crows, even if they hadn't directly experienced the threat themselves. In this study, crows were trapped and banded at five different sites by two people wearing masks of human faces. Masks worn by trappers were designated as “dangerous” masks; masks not associated with the trapping event were designated as “neutral” masks. Later, researchers assessed the responses of crows to people wearing either the dangerous or the neutral masks. They found that crows in the same area that had not been captured still tended to react more strongly to the dangerous mask than the neutral mask. And crows that had not even been born at the time of the initial capture displayed a similar response to the dangerous mask, indicating they had most likely learned of this danger from their parents.
Since individual humans vary widely in their responses to crows (some people feed crows while others kill them), being able to recognize individuals and share information about how threatening they are likely represents a major evolutionary advantage for crows. Experiments like these not only allow us to learn about animal cognition, but also shed light on how animals – from crows to raccoons to ants – use their unique skills to help them thrive in human-dominated spaces.
Citizen science projects are usually also low-tech and provide important information relevant for conservation and public health. These projects can be done in your own backyard without expensive equipment or extensive training. Citizen science projects have gathered data about solar eclipses, helped track light pollution, and contributed to our understanding of global biodiversity. In the realm of public health, data collected by citizen scientists has provided important information about tick species and activity throughout the United States.
Citizen science can not only increase knowledge, but also change the attitudes and behaviors of the people who participate. For example, people who participated in a mammal conservation citizen science project were more likely to share knowledge about local wildlife and conservation efforts after the project, which could lead to increased awareness and support for conservation within the greater community. Another study found that participants in citizen science projects reported increased connection the natural world and increased interest in environmental issues.
Jargon-heavy high-tech science can sometimes feel incomprehensible to the public. But, important discoveries can still be made without cutting-edge technologies or millions of dollars in funding. Discoveries like these are highly accessible and can inspire an interest in science and exploration in people of all ages. There’s still so much that curious minds can learn about our world just by observing it.