Citizen science and observer variability during American pika surveys


  • Associate Editor: Jeff Bowman.


Within- and between-group observer variability can confound scientific discovery. If observer variability can be quantified and is addressed, data collected by participants with wide ranges of experience and training can yield more reliable inferences. The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a mammalian sentinel of climate change that has received consideration for listing under the United States Endangered Species Act. As a result, numerous pika monitoring initiatives have been started throughout the mountains in western North America. Some initiatives employ research teams of biological science technicians (professionals), whereas many rely on networks of citizen scientists, or volunteers, for data collection. To date, few studies have quantified observer variability during pika surveys; none have explored the reliability of professional crews or volunteers. We conducted pika surveys in Glacier National Park, Montana, to quantify observer variability. We investigated observer variability 1) among a crew of professionals, 2) among volunteers, and 3) between professionals and volunteers. Professionals were more consistent at identifying pika signs and estimating potential home ranges and consistently found more pika signs than did the volunteers, with the exception of pika sightings. Estimates of pika occupancy were consistent at each site among volunteers conducting sitting surveys. We suggest that sitting surveys conducted by volunteers can reliably detect pika site occupancy. However, data on population dynamics of pikas (e.g., density) should be collected by professionals. Observer variability analyses of this nature should be common practice for wildlife-resource managers and scientists, especially with observers of varying levels of experience and motivation. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.