>Our turtle program shows citizen science isn’t just great for data, it makes science feel personal



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Claudia Santori, University of Sydney and Ricky Spencer, Western Sydney University

Citizen science is ripe with benefits. Programs can involve hundreds, sometimes thousands, of volunteers who collect reliable, long-term and geographically widespread data. These people donate their time for a cause (or just for fun).

For biodiversity conservation, these kinds of data are invaluable to enable important large-scale projects, from assessing wildlife recovery after bushfires to shedding light on how warming oceans threaten fish.

But we’ve found the benefits of citizen science extend well beyond data collection.

In a new research paper, we show how our environmental citizen science program TurtleSAT
is not only an important source of knowledge and skill development, but also influences participants’ attitudes and behaviours towards the environment.

Saving the turtles

TurtleSAT has so far engaged more than 1,600 volunteers who collect observations of freshwater turtles. Almost 10,000 sightings have been registered since it launched in 2014. The data will ultimately help turtle conservation and management across the country.

A large freshwater turtle in Queensland. Citizen scientists throughout the country are learning to record turtle sightings and stopping turtles dying on roads or from predators.
TurtleSAT

Turtles live in most freshwater habitats across mainland Australia, from wetlands to rivers, and are a vital component of the ecosystem. For example, in previous research, we revealed turtle scavenging can remove fish carcasses from the water five times faster than natural decomposition, dramatically improving water quality.

But turtle numbers have been in steep decline since the 1970s, mainly due to fox predation, road collisions, diseases and poor water quality.




Read more:
From Kangaroo Island to Mallacoota, citizen scientists proved vital to Australia’s bushfire recovery


The benefits of the TurtleSAT app to scientists have been clear from the start. Most recorded turtle sightings (alive and dead) have involved turtles crossing roads and nests that are either intact or have been destroyed by foxes.

This has allowed researchers and communities to identify road death and nesting hotspots — and then do something about it.

Creating environmental stewards

However, the benefits to participants were less clear. So, we surveyed them to gauge any changes in behaviour or attitudes since they got involved.

Of the 148 participants who responded, most (70%) said they’ve learned more about turtles and feel like they’re helping them by participating. After one of our school workshops, for example, a parent told us she didn’t know turtles could live outside the ocean until her daughter began participating in TurtleSAT.

After learning about the turtle population decline, 39% of respondents started restoring habitats, 35% protected nests and 30% implemented pest management mechanisms, such as fox control and predator exclusion fences.

A citizen scientist removing a freshwater turtle from a road in Victoria. TurtleSAT users are trained to safely remove turtles from roads before they’re hit.
TurtleSAT

Importantly, 70% of respondents said participating in the program made them more worried about turtles than they were before.

These findings show how a mostly self-directed project can provide benefits to citizen scientists, while also providing a platform for them to contribute to the conservation of animals they love.

Local issues motivate action

Citizen science programs link the fields of science and the humanities to create an educated and informed public that knows how to solve problems and, most importantly, care enough to do so.

One reason many people aren’t motivated to address climate change and other global issues is the effects are relatively distant from their day-to-day living.

Most people aren’t forced to confront the specifics of climate change (such as extreme weather disasters) in their everyday lives, and so can treat it as an abstract concept. Simply put, this doesn’t motivate people to act.

Blackened trees against a grey sky
Major weather events such as bushfires often occur away from populated areas, and so can feel like a distant issue to many people.
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Citizen science programs, however, can show how climate change does actually affect participants. They become equipped with the information and tools to make significant positive changes to their local area and, most importantly, see direct outcomes.

For example, when citizen scientists spot migratory birds in their neighbourhood, it can help researchers develop long-term databases to evaluate whether changes in migration timing can be attributed to average spring temperature changes.




Read more:
Birdwatching increased tenfold last lockdown. Don’t stop, it’s a huge help for bushfire recovery


Likewise, we’re monitoring the timing of turtle nesting with TurtleSAT, as many turtles in eastern Australia are cued to nest in late spring. Similar research found Loggerhead sea turtles were nesting earlier due to warmer ocean temperatures.

This knowledge wouldn’t have been possible without long-term citizen science data.

Local action, global significance

Making a difference at a local level can even address global issues, such as extinction risks. Citizen science may now re-define the phrase “think global, act local” to “think local, act local, network global”.

The I Spy a Wollemi Pine survey, for example, encourages people from all around the world to log sightings of Wollemi pine. These trees are cultivated in many countries, but fewer than 1,000 remain in the wild.

The simple act of paying attention to nearby trees means scientists can learn what environments the Wollemi pine can tolerate, and better protect it from extinction.




Read more:
Backyard gardeners around the world are helping to save Australia’s deeply ancient Wollemi pine


Joining in is easy

Technology advances have largely driven the explosion of citizen science projects over the last decade. Most people have a computer, camera and GPS in their pockets when they carry their smartphone, so taking part in a citizen science project has never been easier.

If you’re interested in joining a project, you can jump on board one that’s already established, or even develop your own for a common environmental issue in your local area.

Long-necked turtle crossing a red road
Most recorded turtle sightings on TurtleSAT have involved turtles crossing roads.
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You can search for citizen science programs through the Australian Citizen Science Project Finder. To help you get started, check out:

  • WomSAT: if you have a passion for wombats and are concerned about road mortality and disease (such as mange)

  • Frog ID: a fantastic app where you can record frogs croaking in the night and an expert will identify the species for you

  • Sea Slug Census: snorkelers and divers can upload photos and discuss the identities of some of these weird and wonderful creatures

  • 1MillionTurtles: thanks to the success of TurtleSAT, we’re launching a community conservation program where people can actively help restore declining turtle populations.




Read more:
Clicks, bonks and dripping taps: listen to the calls of 6 frogs out and about this summer


The Conversation


Claudia Santori, PhD candidate, University of Sydney and Ricky Spencer, Associate Professor of Ecology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise of citizen science is great news for our native wildlife


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Jenny Davis, Charles Darwin University; Jenny Martin, University of Melbourne, and Sarah Maclagan, Deakin University

Australia is renowned for its iconic wildlife. A bilby digging for food in the desert on a moonlit night, a dinosaur-like cassowary disappearing into the shadows of the rainforest, or a platypus diving for yabbies in a farm dam. But such images, though evocative, are rarely seen by most Australians.

As mammalogist Hedley Finlayson wrote in 1935:

The mammals of the area are so obscure in their ways of life and, except for a few species, so strictly nocturnal, as to be almost spectral.

For some species, our time to see them is rapidly running out. We know that unfortunately many native animals face considerable threats from habitat loss, introduced cats and foxes, and climate change, among others.

More than ever before, we need accurate and up-to-date information about where our wildlife persists and in what numbers, to help ensure their survival. But how do we achieve this in a place the sheer size of Australia, and with its often cryptic inhabitants?

How can we survey wildlife across Australia’s vast and remote landscapes?
Euan Ritchie

Technology to the rescue

Fortunately, technology is coming to the rescue. Remotely triggered camera traps, for example, are revolutionising what scientists can learn about our furry, feathered, scaly, slippery and often elusive friends.

These motion-sensitive cameras can snap images of animals moving in the environment during both day and night. They enable researchers to keep an eye on their study sites 24 hours a day for months, or even years, at a time.

The only downside is that scientists can end up with millions of camera images to look at. Not all of these will even have an animal in the frame (plants moving in the wind can also trigger the cameras).

This is where everyday Australians can help: by becoming citizen scientists. In the the age of citizen science, increasing numbers of the public are generously giving their time to help scientists process these often enormous datasets and, in doing so, becoming scientists themselves.

A camera trap records a leaping frog while a dingo takes a drink at the waterhole in the background.
Jenny Davis

What is citizen science?

Simply defined, citizen science is members of the public contributing to the collection and/or analysis of information for scientific purposes.

But, at its best, it’s much more than that: citizen science can empower individuals and communities, demystify science and create wonderful education opportunities. Examples of successful citizen science projects include Snapshot Serengeti, Birds in Backyards, School Of Ants, Redmap (which counts Australian sealife), DigiVol (analysing museum data) and Melbourne Water’s frog census.

Through the public’s efforts, we’ve learnt much more about the state of Africa’s mammals in the Serengeti, what types of ants and birds we share our cities and towns with, changes to the distribution of marine species, and the health of our waterways and their croaking inhabitants.

In a world where there is so much doom and gloom about the state of our environment, these projects are genuinely inspiring. Citizen science is helping science and conservation, reconnecting people with nature and sparking imaginations and passions in the process.

Australian wildlife in the spotlight

A fantastic example of this is Wildlife Spotter, which launched August 1 as part of National Science Week.

Researchers are asking for the public’s help to identify animals in over one million camera trap images. These images come from six regions (Tasmanian nature reserves, far north Queensland, south central Victoria, Northern Territory arid zone, and New South Wales coastal forests and mallee lands). Whether using their device on the couch, tram or at the pub, citizen scientists can transport themselves to remote Australian locations and help identify bettongs, devils, dingoes, quolls, bandicoots and more along the way.

A Torresian Crow decides what to do with a recently shed snake skin.
Jenny Davis

By building up a detailed picture of what animals are living in the wild and our cities, and in what numbers, Wildlife Spotter will help answer important questions including:

  • How many endangered bettongs are left?

  • How well do native predators like quolls and devils compete with cats for food?

  • Just how common are common wombats?

  • How do endangered southern brown bandicoots manage to survive on Melbourne’s urban fringe in the presence of introduced foxes, cats and rats?

  • What animals visit desert waterholes in Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)?

  • What predators are raiding the nests of the mighty mound-building malleefowl?

An endangered southern brown bandicoot forages in vegetation on the outskirts of Melbourne.
Sarah Maclagan

So, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, love Australian wildlife and are keen to get involved with some important conservation-based science, why not check out Wildlife Spotter? Already, more than 22,000 people have identified over 650,000 individual animals. You too could join in the spotting and help protect our precious native wildlife.

The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Jenny Davis, Head of School, School of Environment, Charles Darwin University; Jenny Martin, Lecturer in Science Communication, School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne, and Sarah Maclagan, PhD candidate, Centre for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.