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Take Pictures of Your (Six-Legged) Roommates for Science

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Modern Americans spend nearly 90% of their lives indoors. Yet despite all that time inside, we know remarkably little about the life that shares our indoor spaces. This spring, a team at North Carolina State University hopes to change that by asking students to document the creatures they find in their dorms, homes, and apartments for a citizen science project called “Never Home Alone @ NCSU.”

Photo of a cockroach.

Cockroach. Photo by C.L. Goforth, used with permission.

Ever since we humans climbed down from the safety of the trees, we have been walling ourselves off from the wild outdoors. And while we may imagine our modern indoor spaces to be the exclusive domain of humans, they are in fact home to a diverse array of lifeforms. In fact, many of these species have adapted specifically to live alongside us.

Yet while the creatures of our kitchens, showers, and beds share an intimacy afforded to few others, we know almost nothing about who they are and how they survive.

Photo of a moth fly.

Moth fly. Photo by C.L. Goforth, used with permission.

This dichotomy piqued the interest of Matt Bertone and Rob Dunn, two researchers at North Carolina State University. Two years ago, they set out on the first ever scientific expedition to explore the wild unknown of indoor spaces. They crawled under furniture, picked through carpet fibers, and analyzed the dusty corners and windowsills of 50 homes around Raleigh, North Carolina expecting to find a few dozen common species of fly, cockroach, and book louse.

It turns out they were off by two orders of magnitude. The research team had discovered a veritable rain forest of more than 1,000 species, many of them little-studied and poorly understood. Their study revealed that we not only live alongside wildlife; our homes are in fact living, breathing ecosystems that breed a unique and diverse patchwork of creatures found nowhere else on earth. By Dunn and Bertone’s count, the arthropod diversity of their sampled homes was higher than that found in many natural ecosystems like alpine savannahs.

Photo of beetle.

End-band netwing beetle (Calopteron terminale). Photo by Jackson Boone, used with permission.

The study has since blossomed into a global citizen science project aptly named “Never Home Alone,” where anyone in the world can upload observations of the creatures they find in their homes to the wildlife mapping app “iNaturalist.” Since its launch in August, the project has collected crowd-sourced photographs of more than 5,000 creatures from Easter Island to Qatar. Among the observed animals are some usual suspects, like cockroaches, flies, ants, and beetles. But there have also been many surprises, from a curious abundance of giant crab spiders in southeast Asian homes to an American alligator in a garage in Florida.

This spring, the project will launch a new phase, looking at a different uncharted frontier of indoor biodiversity: the college campus. The new iteration, called “Never Home Alone @ NCSU,” will open the project up to students and faculty living on or near the NC State campus that are interested in documenting the wild life of their dorms, apartments, and houses. By partnering with the public, the research team will be able to access data that they never could have gathered on their own. They can also answer new questions, like whether different cleaning regiments in dorms might influence their biodiversity, or even whether sharing your home with different types of life is associated with positive or negative health effects.

Photo of pill bugs.

Pill bugs. Photo by Patricia O’Hare, used with permission.

But beyond this, the Never Home Alone @ NCSU team hopes that project volunteers will come away with a deeper appreciation for the wilderness that is in their homes. While some may be unnerved at the idea of deliberately seeking out the leggy denizens of their basements without the express purpose of spraying them with insecticide, the truth is that we all live with wildlife. The homes sampled in Dunn’s and Bertone’s study were not dirty or decrepit. They were in fact some of the nicest in the city. A later study by Misha Leong from the California Academy of Science found that wealthier homes actually have more bugs, even after adjusting for square footage. So if you can’t ever really live alone, you might as well get acquainted with your six and eight legged tenants. You might be surprised by how beautiful some of them are, like the Crotalaria moth, or by the incredible (and beneficial) life strategies of others, like the jewel wasp, whose young feed solely on cockroaches.

There is a whole ecosystem of creatures chasing prey, building homes, and raising young under our laundry baskets and sofas, and many of them are poorly understood or wholly unknown to science. In an era with no more blank spots on the map, you can still be an explorer of these wild landscape without even leaving the living room. And you just might find something amazing.

Above is a short film about the project made by the author of this post, Bradley Alf.

If you watch and listen closely, your home will reveal itself for what it truly is– a continuation of the web of life we have been living with for millennia. What will you find?

“Never Home Alone @ NCSU” was selected as the 2019 “Wolfpack Citizen Science Challenge Project,” a program meant to engage the broader NC State University (NCSU) community in a campus-wide citizen science project. Students, faculty and staff participate in the project through the new NCSU campus portal on SciStarter. NCSU is the nation’s first Citizen Science Campus and the Wolfpack Challenge is a key component of that initiative.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!


Bradley's headshot.About the Author

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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