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Citizen science

By Martin Hatchuel

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When you look at them closely, the gardens and protected wildlife areas on your estate probably host an astonishing number of different plants, insects, birds, and even reptiles and mammals. Your observations about the natural world around you can be enormously helpful to scientists – and collecting data can be a lot of fun, and a great way of building your community, too.

More than the buzzword of the day, biodiversity is the secret that keeps us going. Defined by Stuart L. Pimm* as ‘the variety of life found in a place on Earth or, often, the total variety of life on Earth,’ the concept of biodiversity also implies all the various cogs on the gears (niches in biology-speak) that keep healthy ecosystems going.

But biodiversity is also an indication of ecosystem success or collapse. Take the bees out of an environment, for example, and see what happens, which is why measuring biodiversity becomes vitally important in this rapidly changing world of ours; it helps us understand where we’re going, and how we might prevent the looming planetary disaster we’re currently facing.

The enormous scale of the task of measuring biodiversity, though, is often beyond the reach of even the best-funded science. But this is where citizen science comes in.

 

What is citizen science?

Citizen scientists are ordinary people like us who choose to spend some of their time recording their observations in nature, and sharing them with each other, and with qualified scientists working on specific research projects. It’s a great way of enjoying the outdoors, making a (perhaps small but nevertheless significant) contribution to conservation, and of learning about the world around us. And, since so many residential estates have been designed to make the best of the country’s astonishing diversity, projects to record sightings in your estate’s wild-lands or wetlands, or even on its golf course or in its landscaped gardens, would seem to be a perfect fit for HOAs that are serious about protecting our planet – and for those trying to build communities.

 

Become a citizen scientist

South Africa is blessed with a very active, very highly regarded scientific community, but science is not restricted to people with relevant degrees. Many researchers welcome input from the public through a huge number of fascinating and exciting projects that depend on public input.
Some may be short term, some may be seasonal, and some become almost permanent. Birders are probably the most long-standing of citizen scientists, but anyone can do it – and you don’t even really need to know what you’re looking at.

 

iNaturalist

All you need is a portal like iNaturalist that can help you identify what you see, and then to document and share sightings. It’s an international site managed for local conditions by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

Simply sign up for a free account on iNaturalist, take a clear photo or two of the plant or bird or gogga or moss (or any life form) that you’ve seen, upload it, tag it on the site’s mapping system, and you then either choose from the algorithm’s suggested identifications, or mark the species as ‘Unknown’, and then wait for someone who knows about these things to guide you towards the correct name. And they do. These people are kind like that.

iNaturalist has many useful features, one of the best of which is its ‘Projects’ facility. Probably best created by your estate’s environmental officer – because projects require a bit of knowledge both of how the site works, and of the species of your area – a project allows groups of people to pool their observations, which will then appear automatically in the project list whenever they’re correctly pinned on the map.

A project on iNaturalist would have obvious benefits for your estate – it could become an inventory of the estate’s biodiversity, and provide a convenient, first-stop resource to help anyone who wants to know more about the species they’ve seen in your area. It’s useful for management too, since it links individual species to deeper levels of information on other sites like the Red List of South African Plants (redlist.sanbi.org), where you’ll find a measure of each species’ risk of extinction, or the Encyclopaedia of Life. inaturalist.org/places/south-africa, biodiversityadvisor.sanbi.org, eol.org

 

South African National Biodiversity Institute

SANBI involves itself in citizen science through iNaturalist, and via virtual museum projects like the South African Bird Atlas Project.
Its citizen science portal (biodiversityadvisor.sanbi.org/participation/citizen-science – launched in 2012) lists projects that range from the Red List (‘assist in red list evaluation; anyone may contribute’) to early detection of invasive alien species (‘Every year new alien species start to go wild. Help us stop them’). Other projects include developing a database of the flora of the fynbos, documenting illegal poaching and harvesting, documenting climate patterns, and mapping the sea corals, sea slugs, seashells, and sea fishes of our coastline.

 

Animal Demography Unit

The University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit (adu.uct. ac.za/adu/citizen-science) began long before we had smartphones, with the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), which ended in 1992.

This groundbreaking project captured data from more than 100,000 checklists submitted by thousands of observers, many of whom were volunteers, and all of whom were keen birders – probably still the most avid of citizen scientists. The data from this and subsequent bird atlas projects is used to produce distribution maps – the sort you’ll find in the most authoritative bird books.

The ADU has also coordinated projects to map things like frogs and butterflies and, from 2005 to 2009, partnered with SANBI on a project to assess the conservation status of the reptiles of the subcontinent. These all relied on citizen science to help with data collection.

And it’s the ADU that probably sums up the value of citizen science best: ‘Each data point the ADU’s citizen scientists collect is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of biodiversity,’ writes Les Underhill on the unit’s site. And then, he continues, the scientists can turn all these little pieces of raw data into the kind of information on which conservation decisions can be based.

How cool is that? Now your evening strolls are not just good for you, your health, your mental health, and your family – they can also help to save the world.

 

* Stuart L. Pimm, author of The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth, is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment (USA), and Extraordinary Professor in the University of Pretoria’s Conservation Ecology Research Unit.

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