The iNatural selection? A tool for biodiversity monitoring by community-based groups in NZ

With increasing environmental change, more people are volunteering or becoming members of biodiversity community groups. These people care about the environment, such as biodiversity, pest control, nature observation and especially restoration of areas. In recent decades, many wild areas in New Zealand have benefited from some short or long-term restoration projects with community groups involved.

Figure 1. Monitoring for vertebrates on Onawe Peninsula. Photo by Yi Liu

Biodiversity monitoring promotes detection of changes in abundances and richness of species, and help us to consider if any conservation actions are useful. Community-based monitoring enlarges this roles and increases the possibility of monitoring projects across various landscapes and species.  Restoration projects involving community groups have some restrictions.

For example, insufficient skills or training around identification of species is a major problem. Peters et al. suggests that knowing what to monitor and how to monitor is a big challenge for community groups. If keen volunteers cannot identify species in their restoration project then they will struggle to make progress. Lack of immediate feedback is another obstacle in the development of community group monitoring. On top of this, expensive or specialist equipment are often necessary for monitoring, which is difficult for community-based groups to own.

With the development of smart technology, monitoring and identification of species in restoration projects or nature observation are easier than before. These techniques break down many previous barriers. New techniques provide the means for community groups to monitor what they care about in restoration projects. Several online tools are available in New Zealand to assist community groups in their restoration projects. For example, anyone can post photos of species that they cannot identify to iNaturalist (NZ) (formerly NatureWatch NZ) which follows other keen volunteers t0 assist them in identifications of species. Other notable platforms are Pest Mapper (Main Trust), Walk the Line (Department of Conservation) and Catch IT (University of Auckland). By using these tools, community groups can quickly acquire the feedback on their monitoring efforts.

Figure 2. An observation on iNaturalist NZ. Photo by Yi Liu

For example, I posted a photo of a species that I had not seen before to iNaturalist (NZ) (See figure 2). Many other users commented their thoughts about the photo and linked it to a species ID. I could then compare between my photos and the species ID images to identify what the species I had found was. Online tools can help students finish their assignments, complementing their data in essays by identifying what species they found is. Another example, my partner Agnes, who is a first-year undergraduate student in Lincoln University, also posted a photo of her observation from a lab. She had to capture five different insect species and identify them. iNaturalist (NZ) made her task of identification more simple (see figure 3).

I’m also interested in documenting how nature is changing in NZ in response to changing land use, species invasions, and climate change. To do this, I obsessively make thousands of nature observations every week.” said by Jon Sullivan, an ecologist at Lincoln University, who likes sharing his observations and has helped to develop the iNaturalist platform in New Zealand.

Jon Sullivan is an active member of the iNaturalist community which he summarizes in a paper in Ecological Management and Restoration. Jon summarizes the role of the three major participants, institutions, biodiversity professionals and community groups, in biodiversity monitoring in restoration projects of New Zealand and their distinctive characteristics. For example, in terms of funding, institutions possess the long-term and more funding compared to the other two groups.

Figure 3. Five observations on iNaturalist NZ. Photo by Yi Liu

Because of these their own advantages, Jon states that community-based restoration groups would have a greater potential if they could work in collaboration with scientists and science institutions. Scientists, especially ecologists, can help community restoration groups select monitoring methods scientifically and provide training, suggestions and feedback. Institutions (e.g. Regional City Councils, Department of Conservation and Ministry for the Environment) can assist data collection and share the data with the public.

Overall, an accessible monitoring system under collaboration among the three participants requires an appropriate approach. This approach includes four steps: 1) to require and advance standard monitoring method. 2) to provide effective data entry in standard formats. 3) to produce automated results of use to community-based groups. 4) to promote share of data with public.

By following these suggestions, it is the community-based restoration groups’ time to transform habitat restoration and pest control in their own projects in the future in New Zealand. New online tools and access to ecologists and species experts will aid them a lot!

The author Li Yiu is a postgraduate student in the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science. He wrote this article as part of his assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

Here is the link to the paper if anyone wants to require further information.

Sullivan, J. J., & Molles, L. E. (2016). Biodiversity monitoring by community‐based restoration groups in New Zealand. Ecological Management & Restoration, 17(3), 210-217.

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