South Shore Breaker - 2021-11-24


‘It’s like treasure’



Devon Helmer was overjoyed when he found a treasure under a rock. But what he found might not be considered treasure by everyone. The 14-year-old Grade nine student from Petitie Riviere was on a quest to find herptiles, or herps, the scientific term used to describe both reptiles and amphibians. Accompanied by his mother Stacey and his dog Pepper, Devon was turning over chunks of slate in a pile of discarded construction materials near a ditch when he found his exotically coloured prize, rarely seen in Nova Scotia. “I flipped over one of the rocks. It was jade green. To me it was like finding jade. It was a beautiful snake,” Devon said. “I knew what they were. But I hadn’t found one before. It’s like treasure basically,” he said. The rarely seen serpent was precisely the kind of treasure the young citizen scientist hoped to discover. Devon had observed other snakes in the pile previously, but this was his first Smooth Green Snake. Devon had even more satisfaction when took several photos of the treasured herp with his father Leif’s borrowed mobile phone and uploaded them to a web platform called inaturalist in the car before returning home. The images and data, including the time and location of the sighting as well as any information he had to help identify the herp, will be used in the development of the Nova Scotia Herp Atlas by the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI), an environmental non-profit in Kempt, in southwestern Nova Scotia. MTRI recognizes Devon as a citizen scientist, sometimes called a community scientist or volunteer conservationist, and considers his contribution to the atlas valuable scientific research. “It’s one of the rarer species of snakes here in Nova Scotia. It was the first green snake observation of the year on the project for this year,” Devon said. He has made observations of 16 species and subspecies, including frogs and toads, snakes and turtles, since becoming active as a citizen scientist and posting his findings to inaturalist. Devon became interested in this type of scientific inquiry at an early age through the encouragement of his father. “I loved reptiles and amphibians, especially marine mammals since I was pretty young. My father was the environmental technologies teacher at NSCC in Bridgewater,” Devon said. “My main goal is to become a marine biologist … I would also like to be a herpetologist,” he said. “It’s really fun working with these animals and working with people who are interested in the same things I am, and I think it will help me with my career in the future.” Devon is thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to ongoing scientific research that will be used to preserve endangered species. “With this new knowledge of where they (herptiles) all are, the MTRI scientists can actually help these different species,” Helmer said. “Herptiles are rare and sensitive creatures. The amount of hero’s (herptiles) in an area can indicate the overall health of an ecosystem.” Devon encourages other budding citizen scientists to start while they are young. “Find time to go into the field and look around. Even if you can’t find much try your best. You are never too young for stuff like this. You can go out with your parents or with a group.” ENCOURAGING THE PUBLIC Nicholas Knutson is the volunteer co-ordinator at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute. He spends his time encouraging the public to get involved in research through citizen science projects. He credits Devon with quickly becoming one of the top herp finders in Nova Scotia, observing about 160 different of them this year. “This was an incredible amount of work and is significantly more than anyone else who wasn’t observing herps as part of their paid work,” Knutson said. “Anyone can be a citizen scientist. The thing we are looking for is that they are motivated to be in nature and to try to help as much as they can,” Knutson said. “By joining this culture, this group of citizens who are contributing to research, you are going to move research forward more quickly. You are going to learn about your local biodiversity while doing it. And you are also going to meet some really great people.” Knutson said MTRI has a growing network of about 2,500 volunteers contributing to projects across the province. If training is needed for a specific project, MTRI will provide it, he said. He encourages potential volunteers to reach out to any organization that does species at risk research or biology research. COMING TOGETHER Rev. Jeff White, of Digby, balances his responsibilities as a pastor with his passion for being in nature with likeminded people. He was one of the leaders during the 2021 Second Annual Kespukwitk Municipal inaturalist Competition. Knutson said he is one of the top botanists in southwestern Nova Scotia and is involved in several other naturalist groups, including the Fundy Erratics, a naturalist hiking group near Digby. White said he enjoys spending days off and vacation observing plants and animals while camping and hiking and posting observational data on inaturalist. “There is joy in seeing something not many people have seen,” White said. “I'm contributing to knowledge about where this bird is seen or where this plant is growing. I wanted … what I was learning with other friends to be helpful to researchers and good for the world.” Maurice Leblanc is a financial planner and former chemist living in Clare. Knutson credits him with observing gulls in southwest Nova Scotia as part of a project supporting rare species that live on the coastal islands of Nova Scotia. “He not only collected a ton of valuable data this summer, he's also been a great help in planning the project, identifying gull hotspots in our study area and in developing good relationships with local industry partners,” Knutson said. Leblanc did a gull count twice a week at three sites noting anything unusual such as bald eagles and their interaction with gulls. He also observed the interaction between the various gulls, adults versus immature and between the herring gull and the bigger black-backed gulls. “I believe the data of all our observations helps our scientists see what is going on in the bird population and how our behaviour is affecting them. Much observation is required to see trends,” Leblanc said. “Perhaps one thing that isn't understood is that whether a bird population is healthy or not is very dependent on how healthy an environment is. So, if a bird population is holding its own, the environment is also holding its own, while if a population is decreasing, the opposite could be true.” Information about becoming a citizen scientist is available at and nick.knutson@


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