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Jamie Allen
Jamie Allen

See a Squirrel? These Citizen Scientists Want to Know About It

Jamie Allen
Jamie Allen

If you spot a squirrel, Jamie Allen wants to know about it. In 2011, Allen, an Atlanta-based writer, found himself wondering exactly how many squirrels there were in the world around him. And so he and another squirrel-curious friend decided to launch the Squirrel Census, an effort to count all the squirrels in his neighborhood. Several woodland-rodent tallies later, the Squirrel Census has gone national.

The first squirrel count began in Atlanta’s Inman Park, where Allen lives, in the spring of 2012, followed by another in the fall of 2015. For each, the Squirrel Census team created an elaborate visual guide to the data for the public, squirrel-obsessed and not. Now, this fall, the project is branching out. Allen and his fellow squirrel counters are organizing a Central Park Squirrel Census for October 2018 with help from local universities, the New York City Parks Department, and other groups.

A person holds up an oversized map.
Squirrel Census

According to the Squirrel Census website, the project is focused “on the Eastern gray (Sciurus carolinensis), his pals, and his mortal enemies.” With its distinctly whimsical site design, filled with animated squirrels and an unexplained pop-up image of author Tom Clancy, you’d be forgiven for thinking the wildlife census is somewhat of a lark. And it is partly a storytelling exercise—the 2016 version of the Squirrel Census report, called Land of a Thousand Squirrels, included not just infographics and a map on the Inman Park squirrel population, but fiction and “general fun,” as Allen told Mental Floss in an email. But it has real scientific methodology, too.

The Squirrel Census team includes an Emory University epidemiologist, a veterinarian, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife fire specialist, and a wildlife illustrator, as well as a small legion of designers, fundraisers, logistics specialists, and other supporters. To estimate squirrel populations, the team uses an established wildlife-counting formula that has previously been used by scientists to study events like the Great Squirrel Migration of 1968. They break the area they want to study into quadrants and send volunteers out with clipboards, maps, and specific questions to tally squirrels over a set amount of time.

A close-up of a map of squirrel sightings
Squirrel Census

Since the first census, Allen and the Squirrel Census team have thrown events to bring their results to the public, spoken at Emory University and other colleges about their methods and results, and launched an iPhone app, called Squirrel Sighter, to allow citizen scientists to contribute data from around the world. Each time a user indicates they've seen a squirrel (dead or alive) in the app, the Atlanta-based Squirrel Census team gets an update with data on the date and time, the location of the sighting, and the weather conditions there.

The app, and the census itself, is meant as a way to “attract people to the idea of sighting squirrels, which are normally so common as to be invisible,” according to Allen, as well as to encourage people to “realize the strange joy of just taking a moment to get outside of their own heads and pay attention to something else.” And of course, in the process, they’ll gather a huge chunk of data that can be used to study wildlife populations in urban areas.

“There are many reasons to do any wildlife census,” Allen tells Mental Floss. “Information is power, it's educational, and our data has been used in academic studies on squirrel populations. But for me, the simple idea of a census allows people to appreciate their surroundings in entirely different and new ways.”

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Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images
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McDonald's May Be Getting Rid of Its Plastic Straws
Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images

First Seattle and then the Queen. Could the Golden Arches be next to join the anti-straw movement? As Fortune reports, McDonald's shareholders will vote at their annual meeting on May 24 on a proposal to phase out drinking straws at the company's 37,000-plus locations in the U.S.

If passed, the fast food behemoth would join the ranks of other governments and businesses around the world that have enacted bans against straws in an effort to reduce plastic waste. Straws are notoriously hard to recycle and typically take hundreds of years to decompose.

McDonald's is currently in the process of removing plastic straws from its roughly 1300 outlets in the UK. However, McDonald's board of directors opposes the move in the U.S., arguing that it would divert money from the company's other eco-friendly initiatives, The Orange County Register reports. This echoes comments from the plastic industry, which says efforts should instead be focused on improving recycling technologies.

"Bans are overly simplistic and may give consumers a false sense of accomplishment without addressing the problem of litter," Scott DeFife of the Plastics Industry Association told the Daily News in New York City, where the city council is mulling a similar citywide ban.

If the city votes in favor of a ban, they'd be following in the footsteps of Seattle, Miami Beach, and Malibu, California, to name a few. In February, Queen Elizabeth II was inspired to ban straws at royal palaces after working with David Attenborough on a conservation film. Prime Minister Theresa May followed suit, announcing in April that the UK would ban plastic straws, cotton swabs, and other single-use plastic items.

It's unclear how many straws are used in the U.S. By one widely reported estimate, Americans use 500 million disposable straws per day—or 1.6 straws per person—but it has been noted that these statistics are based on a survey conducted by an elementary school student. However, plastic straws are the fifth most common type of trash left on beaches, according to data reported by Fortune.

[h/t Fortune]

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Mario Tama, Getty Images
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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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