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Mapping Environmental Contaminants with the Help of Citizen Science

Do you ever wonder how scientists determine what areas have been exposed to dangerous contaminants and who is the most likely to be affected by them? Well, this year I actually learned that researchers are considering animals and their byproducts as a new way to measure contaminants in an ecosystem. One such example, that I became involved with last year, is a citizen science project called Sparrow Swap: a project created by Dr. Caren Cooper of the Biodiversity Lab at the Museum of Natural Sciences. It was here that I worked with Dr. Cooper and a graduate student, Suzanne Hartley, to look at house sparrow eggs as potential indicators of human exposure to environmental contaminants. House sparrows are non-native and displace native birds from cavity nests and bird houses. In response to this, Sparrow Swap volunteers are asked to remove any house sparrow nests that they find in bird houses and to then ship their eggs to our lab. These eggs can be used to map environmental contaminants, study geographic patterns in eggs, and improve control of a pest species.

House sparrows are closely associated to humans, so their exposure to contaminants may indicate our own risk. These small birds can be found in urban and rural areas — sustaining themselves on anthropogenic food sources in addition to seeds and insects. This, in addition to the fact that they don’t migrate, can make them an excellent indicator of localized pollution. After I joined Dr. Cooper’s lab, I had the opportunity to look into Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)– a group of chemicals that were recently brought into the spotlight because they had been spilled in the Cape Fear River here in North Carolina. These chemicals are persistent and tend to work their way up the food chain. So, then the question became: can we use house sparrow eggs to find out how far the chemicals have spread?

 

To find out, we worked with Dr. Theresa Guillette and Dr. Scott Belcher of Belcher Lab here at NC State. With their guidance, we were able to create a procedure to test some of our house sparrow eggs. After a lot of planning, we tested the procedure on quail eggs to see how PFAS that had been inoculated into the eggs would be expressed in the test results. This would allow us to see if our procedure worked and if we would need to make any changes. Once we determine if any changes need to be made to the process, this effort will continue in the following semesters when house sparrow eggs are tested. To determine which house sparrow eggs we will test in the future, I used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to find eggs that were collected near sites of potential PFAS exposure. I also selected eggs that were collected right here, in Raleigh, to act as a control group since there is very little to no exposure in this area.

Now that my time working with Sparrow Swap is coming to a close, I can reflect on what a wonderful learning experience it has been for me. I’ve learned so much about how often research involves trying something new without knowing it will work, all in the name of solving modern environmental problems. Regardless of the results from our testing, being a part of this project has been a foundational experience that has changed how I see science. Creative solutions to new problems, like Sparrow Swap, is what keeps pushing science forward. Innovation is at the heart of NC State and I’m so grateful to have been a part of a new approach in pollutant mapping. I would like to thank Dr. Cooper, Suzanne Hartley, and the College of Natural Resources for making this project possible!