As a child I was hooked on wildlife documentaries (I still am…) and from these I gleaned that the career highlight of any self-respecting botanist or zoologist was to discover a new species. For a while that was my goal too, but then I became sidetracked by questions about genetics and evolution and conservation.
Fast forward to the present, to the recent growth in citizen science, bioblitzes and nature apps, where almost anyone with an interest can find some way to contribute to scientific endeavour. I have experienced citizen science from both sides: as a scientist I have greatly appreciated the help of volunteers to collect samples and data; as a citizen I have contributed wildlife photos and sighting reports and helped with wildlife surveys and monitoring projects. All of the pictures I have shared in this post are ones I have recently uploaded to the Canberra Nature Map – I love taking wildlife photos and in addition to contributing to local biodiversity knowledge, the Canberra Nature Map is a great way for me to find out identifications for species I don’t know.
There’s a lot of discussion among scientists at the moment about the effectiveness of citizen science, how to collect reliable data, and how to retain volunteers. Some of this surely comes down to the expectations and experiences of participants. One thing I’ve come to realise (through occasional conversations rather than proper data collection) is just how public perception of science can be skewed, and how this influences the idea of what “doing science” entails. Media fanfare tends to focus more on “big discoveries” in science – like the discovery of new species – and less on the years of routine, mundane, boring, data collection associated with those discoveries. I understand why that happens, but it can be misleading. Those who volunteer on conservation projects usually do so because they want to make a difference, so as scientists we need to make sure that people understand the many different ways in which they can make a difference.
I’ve met dedicated volunteers who have become discouraged because their results are always “negative”: they have “failed” to find appropriate samples to collect, “failed” to observe the target species of the survey, or “failed” to collect data on anything unusual because they only saw common species. My emphasis here on the word “failed” because of course in most cases these are not failures, especially when part of a carefully-designed study. They may not lead to the same sexy headlines, but the “boring” data can be just as important, or even more so, than the instant gratification of a eureka moment. Here are a couple of reasons why:
There are many ways to observe wildlife in the field and many citizen science programs enlist the help of extra pairs eyes to do so. Whether you are searching a grassland transect on hands and knees, uploading snaps to an app from your camera phone, sitting glued to your binoculars for hours on end, or sitting at home staring at camera-trap photo after camera-trap photo, it is always nice to actually see the species that you are meant to be monitoring. But never forget – the fact that you didn’t see that species is just as important.
By repeating the same surveys year after year, scientists can record changes in the abundance and distribution of wildlife. Perhaps this animal was common in your neighbourhood a decade ago, but despite hours of looking you have never recorded it. Your “boring” data may actually help to identify a decline in a threatened species in time for conservationists to act to prevent extinction. For example, the reason we know that eastern quolls have recently declined in Tasmania is because researchers were able to compare the results of surveys conducted over several years. Because of this, the eastern quoll is now recognised as an endangered species and there is an opportunity for conservation management to step in.
From another perspective, some plants and animals are very common, and it may seem pointless to collect yet more information about them. But scientists aren’t just interested in where a species occurs, we are also interested in how they live and how they behave. Changes in the timing of seasonal events, such as flowering of plants or migratory patterns of animals, are one of the ways we can understand the effects of climate change on wildlife. The study of seasonal events is known as phenology, and citizen scientists have already contributed much to this field. Something as simple as recording the dates of first flowering or your garden plants, or the dates you first see migratory birds on your property each year may turn out to be an extremely valuable contribution to science!
Want to get involved in citizen science? Here are a handful of the conservation-related programs you could join in Australia:
- Add your plant and animal sightings to the Atlas of Living Australia (and also search their site for other citizen science projects)
- Identify wildlife in camera trap photos with Wildlife Spotter
- Join the next Wild Pollinator Count
- Record sightings of wombats, wombat burrows, and wombats suffering from mange using the WomSat app
- Share your platypus sightings with PlatypusSPOT
- Map sightings of feral animals (including mammals, fish, birds and cane toads) around Australia with FeralScan
- Join a Birdlife Australia survey or help with habitat restoration
- Join a Frogwatch or Waterwatch group (search online for your local group)
- Contribute to a local bioblitz or initiatives like Canberra Nature Map to help build a picture of biodiversity in your region