Citizen scientists 'helping discover Australia'

Nov 01, 2012

Amateur naturalists and other unpaid "citizen scientists" are playing a huge and vital role in the ongoing 'discovery' of Australia and all that it contains.

" are unrecompensed, unsung and rarely officially acknowledged – yet they are making a genuinely profound contribution to our understanding of Australian wildlife, and the state of our environment," says Professor Hugh Possingham, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for (CEED) and The University of Queensland.

Professional science, especially field-based data collection, is expensive – but tens of thousands of amateur researchers and naturalists are helping to fill the gaps in our knowledge of our own country – and often make discoveries of scientific significance, including new species, he says.

Furthermore the work of these citizen scientists can be just as valuable and trustworthy as information gathered by professionals. In a study carried out in South Australia's Mount Lofty Ranges, Prof Possingham and Dr Judit Szabo of University found that bird surveys carried out by professional scientists and by amateur birdwatchers yielded results that were 'surprisingly close'.

"There are over 10,000 members of Birds Australia, many of whom take part in regular survey work that helps us to understand the state of our bird life," he says.

"For example the Atlas of Australian Birds is based on around 10 million reports, 420,000 surveys and the work of 7000 dedicated individuals. It's an absolute monument to the love Australians have for their country and its species."

Prof. Possingham said that citizen scientists were also involved in surveys of , frogs, insects, reptiles and marsupials, while anglers were tagging fish and reporting their movements. Some amateur surveys – like the Queensland Wader Study Group surveys of - had been running for 20 years or more, providing a remarkable depth of information.

"In the Mt Lofties, for instance, only about 10-18 per cent of the original vegetation remains intact, and the area has lost a large part of its original birdlife – so it is vital to know what is happening to the rest," he explains.

In further research by Dr Szabo and Ayesha Tulloch of the University of Queensland, environmental scientists are studying how amateur observers operate, so as to help them deliver more scientifically valuable data.

Prof. Possingham urges Australian governments, federal and state, to get behind 'citizen scientists', recognise their contribution to the nation's knowledge of itself – and to fund more of their activities, because they represent exceptional value for public money in addition to the side-benefit of encouraging a healthy lifestyle.

"In Britain the Royal Society for Protection of Birds has over a million members. One Briton in every 60 is involved, in some way, in monitoring Britain's bird life, and there are similar levels of engagement by naturalists in other fields of study.

"Given the vast size of our continent, the many species that remain unknown or undocumented by science, the vast pressures of climate change and development, it is essential we build up in Australia an equal or greater enthusiasm among our citizens for recording our native wildlife."

Prof. Possingham says that citizen scientists not only gain a good education about Australia and its biota – but can also make an important contribution to science and hence to more effective national conservation policy.

"Citizen scientists can often spot a disturbing trend – say, species vanishing from a particular area – long before the conservation experts arrive.

"With all the new smart phones and hand-held devices, amateurs can make a major contribution by collecting images, sound and videos using GPS, which could revolutionise this form of study."

Prof Possingham says Australia should consider developing a national partnership scheme to help fund the activities of suitably skilled groups and citizen scientists.

"This way ordinary Australians can play an even greater role in understanding and looking after the land we love, and its unique fauna and flora."

"Like the coast watchers of World War II, citizen scientists offer us early warning of things that go wrong in our environment and how we are managing it."

Explore further: Stanford researchers rethink 'natural' habitat for wildlife

Provided by ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions

5 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Citizen science: Armies of volunteers aid research

May 08, 2011

(AP) -- Besides being a researcher in New York's Hudson River Estuary Program, environmental scientist Chris Bowser leads citizen projects that collect reams of data for other scientists.

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

13 hours ago

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

23 hours ago

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

(Phys.org) —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...