Journalist, author, citizen scientist; Mary Ellen Hannibal to deliver talk at Los Altos History Museum

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTOS COURTESY MARY ELLEN HANNIBAL

When picking up a book titled “Evidence of Evolution,” one would hardly expect that the same author also wrote “Good Parenting Through Your Divorce.” But as a freelance author, and later a citizen scientist, Mary Ellen Hannibal just took the jobs she could get.

“When you’re a freelance writer, you kind of have to take all the jobs,” Hannibal said. “And so I wrote all kinds of things.” 

Hannibal began her career writing for various Bay Area nonprofits, creating newsletters, articles and books. While writing newsletters for the San Francisco Botanical Garden in the early 2000s, Hannibal discovered a love for botany, and all things science.

“I grew to really love the subject [at the Botanical Garden], and learning about the different plants, understanding their origins, and really learning about science,” Hannibal said. “Because science has its beginnings, in many ways, in botanical research.”

After spending nearly a decade with the Botanical Garden, Hannibal wrote her first scientific book. Published in 2009, Hannibal wrote “Evidence of Evolution” while she was researching for a separate project for the San Francisco Botanical Garden at the California Academy of Sciences in 2007.

Hannibal at the Pillar Point tide pools (courtesy Mary Ellen Hannibal)

“As I was researching this book about how life begins, [scientists at the academy] were telling me that we were in an extinction crisis, and that life was ending prematurely for a lot of species,” Hannibal said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ I need to find out, I need to tell the story.”

After learning about the so-called “sixth extinction,” Hannibal knew that she needed to dig deep and speak out.

So in 2012, Hannibal published “The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last Best Wilderness.” This book focused on the emergence of conservation biology, a relatively new discipline focusing on the confluence of how nature works and how humanity can protect it.

“Even Yosemite or Yellowstone, they were only protected because they were beautiful,” Hannibal said. “At the time nobody was really understanding that we need to have healthy interactions going on in nature, even if it’s not in our own backyards, in order to create a living biosphere for all lifeforms.”

During her research for “Spine of the Continent,” Hannibal first got exposed to the world of citizen science, when she noticed that a common factor among many successful scientific research projects is the involvement of the general public collaborating with professional scientists, hence the name “citizen” science.

One of the first times Hannibal observed citizen science in action was with a group tracking jaguar movements through Arizona and Mexico. The jaguar, being an endangered species, was entitled to a protected habitat space provided by the government. 

“You have to provide critical habitat so those species have a place to live, but where should that be?” Hannibal said. “In Arizona, there are many mountain ranges that have appropriate habitat, so which one should we choose? So we asked, well, where do the jaguars want to go?”

The answer was found through a network of citizen scientists, who learned how to track jaguar prints, and were able to provide data to show where a critical habitat should be located. 

Similarly, citizen scientists all across the United States are contributing animal movement data to ongoing projects to find appropriate locations for highway overpasses and underpasses.

“In order to understand where the animals want to go, we need a lot of data,” Hannibal said. “And really the only way to get that data is to have help from a lot of people. So that’s where citizen science comes in.”

Just a decade or two ago, decentralized data collection required citizen scientists to do extensive research and independently collect and corroborate data. But today, with the advent of digital tools, anyone can be a citizen scientist by just snapping a photo with a cell phone.

“Before, you would have gone out to the field with a little GPS machine and a camera and you [wrote] down where you saw something,” Hannibal said. “Now you just take a picture with your phone and upload it and people can confirm what is in the photo and now it is available to be used by scientists everywhere.”

The largest app that is used for citizen science today is called iNaturalist. The app allows users to upload a photo, at which point software will identify its contents and after it is confirmed by other users, that data point can be used in national biological studies.

“Academic science has tended to be very much old white men, very exclusive and dismissive,” Hannibal said. “But that is really changing. Science today matters less on one individual genius coming up with a great idea, and much more on collaboration.”

Hannibal will be delivering a virtual talk at the Los Altos History Museum on Thursday, April 22 about the history of citizen science and its impact on monarch butterflies, as well as climate change. Register for the free event here.

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