Let’s all become Ecologists

Climate change, deforestation and human development. We are living in a rapidly changing world and nature is responding to those changes. It is a crucial part of ecology, and science in general, to understand natural responses, in order to protect and conserve nature.

Understanding usually involves several well-trained scientists spending many hours in the field, only to end up with data from a small sample that may give them a glimpse of the bigger picture. Often a lot of money, time and manpower is needed to undertake such research. That is why, a few years ago, scientists came up with the idea of involving regular citizens with their research. This type of research is called ‘citizen science’ and can be easily undertaken by anyone in the world who has access to the internet, including YOU.

Citizen science projects use the general public to gather data and information about certain topics. In the field of ecology. Such research may include the the recording of birds in nature. A good example is “eBird” which is a widely used website, allowing everyone to upload their sightings of birds and share them with the community. It is a sort-of massive real-time data base, which gets continuously updated by professional and hobbyist birders, alike. The eBird database has contributed to the publication of hundreds of scientific articles.

Citizen scientist using binoculars. Photo by Guy Dickinson

Even if you prefer to stay in the comfort of your own home you can participate in current research, via websites such as Zooniverse that offers a great array of studies, such as Penguin Watch. Put some music on, get a nice drink and count penguins – sounds like a great afternoon to me!

Citizen science is on the rise. For example, scientists use data collected by citizens to show changes in bird distribution due to climate change and to understand the movement of birds. Yet, more and more scientists raise concerns about the accuracy of citizen science data. The problem is that there is usually no structured, repeatable and standardised method behind it, which is a crucial part of robust science and is needed to produce meaningful findings.

An article by Jon Sullivan, from Lincoln University, suggests that research that combines regular standardised methods with a citizen science approach, is the best of both worlds. During his study, several academics and students counted birds as part of their daily life in the larger Christchurch area. When going on a bike ride they counted birds; when going for a stroll through rural Christchurch they counted birds; simply put they counted birds whenever they could. They followed the general protocols of classic scientific methods with some minor tweaks to simplify the recording process and the volunteers used simple apps on their phones to record their sightings. During this project over 91,000 birds were counted between March 2008 and May 2011.

The results of these bird counts showed rather interesting patterns, which underline the strength of the newfound research method. Various forest bird species, including bellbirds, fantails and grey warblers, were rarely, if at all, seen during the spring months. This is an important insight into how birds are distributed and could help us understand which areas, and at which times, are particularly important to protect.

Some of these birds prefer dense forest-like habitats, with some species being observed in those habitats over 80% of the time, despite forest covering only 10% of the study area. This is a very valuable lesson for conservation. It shows the importance of creating more forest patches in the strongly human-altered landscape, which is critical for various bird species, pollinators and other wildlife.

Most importantly is that more patterns can be derived if there is more data to work with, which is crucial for conservation work. Due to the large coverage, rare species, such as the bellbird, which is only infrequently encountered in the study area, were also recorded repeatedly. In fact, the citizen science approach used here increases the number of rare species observed compared to ordinary standard methods used in science today.

Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ

Although Jon Sullivan admits that his newfound method should not replace current scientific methodology, there is still a lot of power in his “mixed” system. But to make this system perform the best it can, it requires thousands of volunteers to gather the data as part of their daily life. Jon Sullivan argues: “I suggest that it is a responsibility of professional ecologists and their students to take the lead“. Someone has to start, and the best option are trained individuals who share a general passion for the subject. If we as ecologists would count birds during our bike ride home from work or during our workout in the park, we would end up with a lot of data. Because the data was collected following a certain rule set, it would uncover meaningful and useful results for conservation.

However, in future it would be very beneficial if hobbyists and others would join such projects too. This has to be done in a more controlled way than is currently practiced in citizen science. Free online training should be offered, as is done by the Department of Conservation. That way we would gain the benefit of both, sound scientific methods and a lot of data due to many citizen scientists. As mentioned in the article, in New Zealand it would be particularly easy to implement such projects because there are relatively few native bird species and many of them are easily distinguishable.

Whale encounter during a boat trip. Photo by Shafi `

It doesn’t have to end with birds though. Such projects could be implemented for an array of different species and environments. There is even a citizen science project on the distribution and diversity of seaweed. While this might not sound too exciting to many, this project produces for conservation critical information about the effects of ocean acidification and the rise in global sea temperatures. I think it would be interesting to do similar projects within the marine biology world, for example with the identification of dolphins and whales by marine biologists and water sport fanatics.

Not only will such projects or citizen science in general help us protect our vulnerable biodiversity, but it will also allow many people to become more connected with nature again. Citizen science provides an impetus to observe nature more frequently and to engage with what is seen.

If you want to give citizen science a try, check out the annual garden bird survey. On the website you can find all the information you need, and you’ll be taught how to identify certain birds and how to record your data. Let’s enjoy nature and help protect our wildlife together. Let’s all become ecologists.

You can find the journal article here: Sullivan, J., 2012. Recording birds in real time: a convenient method for frequent bird recording. New Zealand Journal of Ecology.

The author Maurice Kasprowsky is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught jointly at Lincoln University and University of Göttingen. He wrote this article as part of his assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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