Citizen scientists needed: Smithsonian soliciting ginkgo leaves to study climate change

The next time you step out into the great outdoors, keep your eyes open for Ginkgo biloba trees.

Ginkgo leaves, best known for their pungent smell and medicinal properties, can also be used to study the past, present and future of climate change. It is for this reason that researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are asking for the help of “citizen scientists.”

To become a citizen scientist, researchers ask that you pluck a few ginkgo leaves, take some pictures of the scene, and record your observations through the iNaturalist mobile app. Then, package your sample in an envelope and send it over to the museum.

According to the museum’s online portal for the Fossil Atmospheres project, the ginkgo plant has been around for over 200 million years. The plant has survived three mass extinctions and has retained a similar appearance throughout its time on Earth. Because of this particular characteristic, researchers can assess how the planet’s atmosphere has changed over time, as well as predict the effect of future climate shifts, by comparing modern specimens with fossils dating to the past.

The research project is comprised of two main parts: An experiment based out of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and a multi-phase citizen science initiative.

The experimental side of the research involves a grove of 10-foot-tall ginkgo trees being grown at different carbon dioxide concentrations, ranging from 400 parts per million (ppm), which is the level found in the atmosphere today, to 1,000 ppm, the level seen when the Earth’s climate was at its warmest.

On the other hand, the citizen science initiative relies on crowd-sourced stomatal counting, as a plant’s stomatal index reflects the carbon dioxide concentration at the time of its growth. Scientists plan to gauge the conditions in which the plant developed and is set to launch a new leaf survey.

This is where the researchers need citizen scientists to step in. For the entire month of August, researchers are asking science enthusiasts from across the country to send in ginkgo leaves from local communities.

“These samples will be used to paint a clearer picture of how a plant’s features reflect the environment in which it grows, providing insights on contemporary climate that can then be applied to prehistoric climates,” wrote the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Laura Soul, Deep Time Science Education Specialist, notes the vitality of citizen scientists in “enabling the project to have a much broader scope and [helping researchers] answer questions” that they would otherwise not be able to answer.

To contribute to the research, interested citizen scientists must thoroughly follow a set of instructions detailing the process of obtaining, recording and submitting specimens. For more details, visit the project’s website.