Would you play Pokemon Go for science?

My son and husband have just returned from a pleasant walk around the neighborhood during which they managed to snag a Charmander, Spearow, and Scyther.  They will now take these creatures home to care for them, train them, and watch them develop.  This is, of course, not wildlife biology, but the game Pokemon Go, and it could be the start of something revolutionary for ecological research.

For those of you not familiar with the Pokemon mania that is sweeping through the population of Millennials and their progeny, this newly-released augmented reality game transforms Pokemon from something played on a screen to a real-life search for virtual creatures that can only be found by walking around outside.  To play, you actually have to go out in your yard to find grass-type Pokemon and go to the park with a pond to find water ones.

Many elements of Pokemon Go embody the things that I love about my job as an entomologist: going outside, looking for creatures, collecting them, bringing them back to learn about them, and sharing my discoveries.  Unlike the average Pokemon hunter, I don’t make the insects I bring back to the lab do battle with each other; however some of my colleagues who study ant behavior do.

The similarity of Pokemon to entomology is no coincidence, the game designer, Satoshi Tajiri, was an avid insect collector as a child, and the whole idea of battling creatures was inspired by the Japanese pastime of beetle battling.

 

Even as I am struck by the similarities between of Pokemon and my profession, I am enthralled by the idea of developing a similar game that takes Pokemon Go’s photographic creature-hunting approach to “collect” real organisms as part of a massive citizen-science based ecology project.

In my imagined game of ‘Ecology Go’ (please help me think up a catchier name) users would be sent to “scan” various birds, beasts, and bugs by photographing them with their phones.  Once scanned the user could get a cutely-drawn virtual “copy” of said creature to care for in a little electronic world on the user’s phone.  Such creatures would need virtual food or shelter which could be obtained by photographing real-life trees, flowers, and other host plants.  Of course, in addition to being fun, this game would be stealthily educational, teaching people how identify the living things that surround them, but don’t mention that part to the kids.

Meanwhile, the information from the photographs could be used by scientists interested in ecology and biogeography (the science of what organisms live where) to answer questions about how well pollinators are doing, where birds are migrating, when pests are spreading, and how all these things are impacted by land use and climate changes.

In a highly unscientific survey of user acceptance, I have run this game idea by an actual 10-year old, who said that my game idea sounded “fun to play” and who offered helpful suggestions such as “make it so you can build things for your virtual creatures” and “include slimes and dragons.” Several 30-year olds have mentioned that they would want to play too, but as all of them were biologists, take the interest level of that demographic with a grain of salt.

Although I know that image-recognition software isn’t yet up to snuff for a ‘Ecology Go’ game to exist, such a game is not so far-fetched.  Apps, like Birdsnap, are working to improve upon machine recognition of birds from photographs, and citizen science apps such as, the Lost Ladybug Project and eBird, already help scientists track the numbers of rare ladybugs and birds. While we wait for machine learning to catch up with human visual acuity, anyone who takes a screen shot of an interesting (real) creature while playing Pokemon Go can put it on Twitter with the hashtag #pokeblitz for scientists to identify.  Perhaps, the closest thing on the internet today to “Ecology Go” is Project Noah an app which gives users missions to photograph different types of plants and animals around them.

However, none of these apps and projects have the game mechanics that would give them widespread appeal to those who are not already biologically inclined.  Pokemon Go is fun because it turns your yard and neighborhood into a daily scavenger hunt.  Like the way my research provides me various incentives to collect a ton more insects that I would do on my own, Pokemon Go provides incentives for users to keep Pokemon-hunting for longer than the average person would casually search for wildlife.  An actual game-based ecology app would have the potential to connect its players more deeply to the natural world, and at the same time, give scientists the information they need to understand that world more clearly.

Dad’s Garden: A Garden of Memories

This blog is intended to be a place of lighthearted, nerdy gardening ideas and fun science information.  However, on the anniversary of my father’s death, I’d like to start it off with a more serious dedication:

My Dad was many wonderful things, a research scientist, a dedicated parent, an avid naturalist, but he was a lousy gardener.  While my mom filled the yard with overflowing beds of stunning ornamentals, my Dad lay claim to the dry, root-choked bed under an enormous weeping-willow tree in the back corner of the yard and attempted to grow the flowers he truly loved, woodland wildflowers.  The garden wasn’t quite a total failure. I remember him proudly naming to me the few scraggly plants that survived in the outskirts away from the willow’s densest roots, mayapples, violets, and for a time, bleeding hearts.  Those poor bleeding hearts; they weren’t happy under that tree, and after it was cut down to make way for a sugar maple, they were equally unhappy in the baking sun.   My Dad’s attempt to replant the bleeding hearts in the shade closer to the house only resulted in their untimely demise under the careless feet of my sister and I.  However, for the brief years they were alive, I remember being utterly enchanted by the complex shape of their delicate flowers.

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Here’s the one shot of Dad’s wildflower garden that I have. It was taken after the willow was gone, and the sugar maple was just planted.

Despite his failure as a gardener of wildflowers, my father was wildly successful at sharing his love of botany with me on the hikes we had together in my early childhood.  He would constantly point out any, and every, wildflower we came across, he would wax poetic over the blooms of flowering dogwoods and redbuds in the spring, and he would even exclaim with delight at obscure liverworts we saw while climbing over mossy rocks along streambanks.  I’m sure that these formative experiences were a large part of what drove me to become a biologist later in life.

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My dad and three-year old me exploring a stream. He was in his element in the woods.

My father’s will stated that, upon his death, he wanted his ashes scattered where “green thing grow and waters flow”.  Most of his ashes have been dispersed in the waters he loved, but I brought a few home with me because I felt that he needed a second chance at the wildflower garden he always wanted, but never had the time, or later in life, the energy, to care for.  I scattered a few ashes in shady garden bed, and planted a redbud seedling I that had volunteered in my vegetable bed in the center of the new bed.  I am slowly filling in the remaining area with wild flowers: mayapples, wild iris, columbines, solomon’s seal, spiderwort, foamflower, and of course, bleeding hearts.  One of the bleeding hearts I planted did not survive the winter, and another got smothered by my overly-zealous mulching. Even in death, the man has bad luck with bleeding hearts.  Fortunately, the rest of the plants seem happy.  Although the garden currently has the rather awkward looking “new garden” syndrome, my hope is that as it grows into its own, I will have a nearby place of natural beauty for reminiscence and solace.

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Despite being barren of plants, my garden is already full of memories.

I close this post with a poem I wrote for my Dad’s memorial service.  If he were alive, he would have embarrassed me by sharing it with all of our family and friends.  Since he is gone, I guess it is up to me, in many ways, to carry on his work.

A Poem upon the Death of My Father

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

No Longfellow can quite express the luster of his greying hair,

His faltering step,

The twinkle in his eye.

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

No Frost can capture his love of the dogwoods in full bloom,

His rambling tales,

His smile now gone.

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

No Dickenson portrays the emptiness of his flannels shirts,

No Whitman tells of days of constant measuring,

No Keats depicts his gentle laugh.

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

The best they do is fail to say the inexpressible.

Introduction to the Biologist’s Garden

There are a ton of biology blogs and a multitude of gardening blogs, but few that seem to link the two together in a way that is satisfying to me as both a biologist and gardener.  Garden Rant and the Biology Professors are on the right track, but deal mostly with horticultural science.  Your Wild Life is a great place to learn about the ecology of humans and their houses, but what about garden ecology?  The Artful Aomeba is a treasure trove of the wonders of natural history worldwide, but I want to focus more on the natural history of the little guys in our own backyards that go unnoticed.  Most of all, I want everyone to feel like biological science is for everyone, accessible to anyone with a yen to grow, observe, think critically, and discover things.   I currently envision the blog to have four main areas of focus:

  1. Occupy Biology: 1% of the species in your yard get all of the glory.  Discover the amazing hidden lives of the other 99% of living things that surround you.
  2. Sustain-A-What: Make the link between nutrient cycling and fertilizer use.  Learn more about who’s eating whom in your garden’s food chains.  Enjoy applied ecology for gardeners.
  3. Geek Out: Are you obsessed with science, history, video games, or books?  There’s a way to geek out about that in the garden. Check back to this page for inspiration for theme gardens to match (almost) any obsession.
  4. We Can Do It: Biology is for everyone! Learn how to set up experiments and participate in citizen science projects (or start your own!). Have fun doing biology in your yard.

As a full-time research associate in an agricultural entomology lab, I may be a bit slow to post during the peak of my summer research season, but I hope you will follow me on Twitter to get updates when I do.  This blog will be a fun place for biology nerds to learn more about gardening, gardening nerds to learn more about biology, and everyone to become a little of both.