Citizen Science Could Save California from Catastrophic Oak Tree Loss

california oak tree photo

Photo via celesteh via Flickr Creative Commons

The oak tree is an iconic part of the California landscape, but an insidious pathogen threatens to wipe out as much as 90% of the state's live oaks and black oaks within 25 years. It's called "sudden oak death" and has been moving along the coast since 1995. Over 100 different plants can play host, but it's most devastating to the oaks. Yet, a new program that leans on the efforts of citizen scientists is helping researcher track the spread of the pathogen, and hopefully stop it. The University of Berkeley reports that sudden oak death has been the demise of tens of thousands of oak trees from Big Sur to the southern edges of Oregon. But a massive effort with citizen scientists has generated a map plotting the pathogen's path around the Bay Area. Just last year, 240 people helped collect over 1,000 samples, including on the Berkeley campus itself where the pathogen was thought to have been eradicated a decade ago. While there doesn't seem to be a cure in sight, the efforts can help keep SOD in check.

The team uses "SOD blitzes" that include nearly 500 Bay Area participants and are organized by neighborhood and community groups. By collecting leaves from host plants -- primarily California bay laurels -- researchers can see where and to what degree the pathogen has taken hold.

"This is a way for people to get involved and help in this seemingly relentless problem," said Chavez, 58, of Santa Rosa, who learned that the disease has spread from Healdsburg west toward Forestville, Occidental and Sebastopol. "I want to help save our native California oaks. The more of us who get involved, the better chance we have of stopping this deadly pathogen."

Citizen science is a proven way to speed up the research process for scientists -- from tracking fireflies in backyards to find out whether or not the bugs are on the decline, to reporting on the seasonal activities of local flora and fauna to track the impacts of climate change. It's a solution to many research limitations, and can hopefully also be a way to save California's oaks.

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