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Low-tech scientists are using their eyes, ears, and intuition to make important discoveries

A fancy new satellite? A particle accelerator? Not required

Hannah Thomasy


University of Washington

Headline-making scientific discoveries and innovations seem to be increasingly high-tech. Scientists edit genes, 3D print organs, discover new elementary particles with massive accelerators, and search for exoplanets with multi-million dollar telescopes. 

But you don’t always have to travel to the ends of the earth or have access to state-of-the-art technology to make cool discoveries. Equally fascinating research projects are underway that use nothing fancier than a smartphone or the powers of human observation and curiosity. 

In a recent paper, a research team from the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph have reported a surprising discovery in Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin has been the site of wildlife research projects for 75 years. But even after all this time, it seems that the park still holds plenty of secrets. 

Ecologists discovered that purple pitcher plants in the park, long believed to subsist on small invertebrates like insects and spiders, also prey on young salamanders. “Anybody could have come across it,” says ecologist Patrick Moldowan, one of the study’s co-authors. “We might think that all the questions are answered and all the neat observations have already been collected but here we are in 2019 and there’s something new and exciting right in our very own backyard.” 

a spotted salamander trapped in a purpple pitcher plant

An unlucky spotted salamander becomes a pitcher plant's lunch

 Patrick D. Moldowan 

At first, researchers thought that this might be a freak occurrence, but after surveying dozens of pitcher plants, they found that this was actually quite common. Moldowan and his colleagues found salamanders in about 20% of the purple pitcher plants they surveyed, indicating that salamanders may be an important part of these plants’ diet, helping them survive in low nutrient soils. 

Moldowan says that he doesn't believe this is a new phenomenon; instead, it's simply an issue of timing. He says that field research on carnivorous plant diets usually takes place in the spring and early summer, whereas the juvenile salamanders – the ones that are at risk for becoming plant snacks – don't emerge from their aquatic habitats until late summer or fall. 

Another example of fascinating low-tech experiments is the work done on American crow cognition by researchers at the University of Washington. The research team, headed by avian ecologist John Marzluff, was the first to experimentally demonstrate that wild crows can not only recognize human faces, but also remember the threatening ones for nearly three years. 

Other researchers were also able to demonstrate social learning in wild crows – in other words, crows were able to learn about threats by observing the behavior of other crows, even if they hadn't directly experienced the threat themselves. In this study, crows were trapped and banded at five different sites by two people wearing masks of human faces. Masks worn by trappers were designated as “dangerous” masks; masks not associated with the trapping event were designated as “neutral” masks. Later, researchers assessed the responses of crows to people wearing either the dangerous or the neutral masks. They found that crows in the same area that had not been captured still tended to react more strongly to the dangerous mask than the neutral mask. And crows that had not even been born at the time of the initial capture displayed a similar response to the dangerous mask, indicating they had most likely learned of this danger from their parents.

four standing crows looking at one flying

Recent research shows that crows, like primates, learn from their peers

 Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash 

Since individual humans vary widely in their responses to crows (some people feed crows while others kill them), being able to recognize individuals and share information about how threatening they are likely represents a major evolutionary advantage for crows. Experiments like these not only allow us to learn about animal cognition, but also shed light on how animals – from crows to raccoons to ants – use their unique skills to help them thrive in human-dominated spaces. 

Citizen science projects are usually also low-tech and provide important information relevant for conservation and public health. These projects can be done in your own backyard without expensive equipment or extensive training. Citizen science projects have gathered data about solar eclipses, helped track light pollution, and contributed to our understanding of global biodiversity. In the realm of public health, data collected by citizen scientists has provided important information about tick species and activity throughout the United States.

Citizen science can not only increase knowledge, but also change the attitudes and behaviors of the people who participate. For example, people who participated in a mammal conservation citizen science project were more likely to share knowledge about local wildlife and conservation efforts after the project, which could lead to increased awareness and support for conservation within the greater community. Another study found that participants in citizen science projects reported increased connection the natural world and increased interest in environmental issues.

Jargon-heavy high-tech science can sometimes feel incomprehensible to the public. But, important discoveries can still be made without cutting-edge technologies or millions of dollars in funding. Discoveries like these are highly accessible and can inspire an interest in science and exploration in people of all ages. There’s still so much that curious minds can learn about our world just by observing it. 

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Lowell Iporac

Marine Biology and Marine Ecology

Florida International University

This is a really cool article that resonates with me as someone who’s partly using citizen science techniques to monitor ecological phenomena (I ask volunteer groups to download a citizen science app to monitor pelagic Sargassum landings in Florida and Caribbean Beaches). It especially helps to know that you don’t need to have cutting edge technology to collect necessary data, which is the focus of this article. The author made the link of low-tech science with citizen science projects towards the end, which especially took my attention.

I think the technology used in a study largely depends on what questions are being asked. If I’m doing a study related to biogeochemistry, I have to use a fancy, high-tech machine to process samples of nutrient or plant material. Already, the mention of this machine prevents me from figuring out what the larger picture is. The machine use may be necessary, but communicating that methodology in a way that’s accessible to someone who’s not in that field is something that should be addressed, especially in studies that go beyond observation.

Even when using “simple” citizen science smartphone apps, I usually take time with volunteer groups to go step-by-step in using the app. Other, less involved methods, such as tabling outreach and recruitment of the public, or even sharing the protocol to other groups by email, don't promote volunteer retention. I support utilizing low-tech, simple, and efficient technology in some observational studies, but to maximize the use of that technology among citizen scientists should also come with engagement and feedback between the scientists and the interested public.

Luyi Cheng

Molecular Biology and Structural Biology

Northwestern University

I enjoyed reading this article! The research you focus on to highlight low-tech science is really interesting (UW alum myself, I remember hearing about the crow research!). For the purple pitcher plants, I’m super curious how the researchers even noticed in the first place that these plants were eating young salamanders?! Was there something special about the time and circumstance? I know you mentioned the season, but on a larger timescale, if it wasn’t due to technological advancements, some event or lucky initial observation that allowed them to make this discovery? You’ve got me interested – I think it’d be crazy cool to see a video of these plants in action.

I also agree with Lowell; I found myself engaged at the end when you connect low-tech science to citizen science projects. Citizen science projects and large scale crowdsourced science initiatives are always linked to this much larger idea of accessible science – anyone can contribute (send in your samples or observations) and anyone can benefit (data and results are made publicly available). And participants can learn and connect more along the way as well! I find this a powerful and inspiring concept and you hit this message right at the end!

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

A number of good points are made here, particularly regarding the need for citizen science and science that is understood by the general public. The data/jargon heavy science is great for quickly communicating findings to others in the field, but it can be impossible for anyone outside the narrow focus field (let alone outside of science altogether) to understand or relate to. Bringing science to the forefront of popular culture and putting it into people’s own hands in a way they can understand is vital to keeping science alive and funded. If nobody can see the importance of science except the scientists themselves, the system has failed as a whole.