Science Blog

Find biodiversity in your backyard

CorrespondentJanuary 13, 2013 

Holly Menninger is director of public science for Your Wild Life, based at N.C. State. At


Holly Menninger is director of public science for Your Wild Life, based at N.C. State University. At the lab’s blog (, she writes about biodiversity where people live, from their bodies to the insides of their homes. Follow her on Twitter as @DrHolly. Questions and answers have been edited.

Q: What sparked your interest in the natural world?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by critters, particularly insects. In kindergarten, I felt the need to go out with a bucket after rainstorms to collect all the earthworms that had washed into the curb, and relocate them.

Q: What in particular did you find attractive about the Your Wild Life project?

The focus of our project is looking at the biodiversity in our everyday lives. When you think of biodiversity, you often think of these far-off places like the Amazon or a coral reef. There’s so much that remains to be discovered in our own backyards. I think what makes me most excited about our program is that we’re engaging the public in the exploration of biodiversity. Those explorations are looking not just at your backyard but your own body: in your belly button, maybe your arm pit. Appreciation for thinking about biodiversity as something local or hyper-local is really intriguing.

Q: How does the lab use citizen scientists?

We have projects where we’re asking people to participate in sample collection. For the Wild Life of Your Home project, we’re trying to map the biodiversity of microbes in our homes. We send people kits with giant Q-Tips they swab on surfaces and send back to us. In that case they’re taking the samples, but they’re not actually doing the analysis.

But we have other projects where people are going beyond data collection. That’s where we’ve gone with this belly-button biodiversity project. We started having folks contribute samples, but then we turned the data back over. People can play with that data. They may have a different way of looking at it, and they can share their observations through the blog.

I guess in that way, we’re trying to shake things up a little bit, because often the model in citizen science has been for people to participate, but then that goes in a black box. So we’re trying to complete that whole loop.

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