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Citizen scientists enable biodiversity data collection to be done on a broad geographical scale.

Try this arithmetic. The popular size unit for collecting data about animal distributions for many species mapping projects is the quarter degree grid cell, which is roughly a square with sides of 25km each. In round numbers there are about 2 000 of them in South Africa. If a scientist wants to spend a day in each of them, that will take five and a half years. The Animal Demography Unit’s bird atlas project has about 1 000 active citizen scientists. In theory at least, they could visit the 2 000 grid cells in two days.

Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) nest © Megan Loftie-Eaton
Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) nest © Megan Loftie-Eaton

Life is not that easy, because the citizen scientists are concentrated in the cities, but it makes the point. The power of citizen science is that vast amounts of data can be collected in short time periods. Two things are going on here. Primarily it looks like it is the citizens helping the scientists. But the more important thing is that involvement in data collection is changing the citizen scientists.

Most of us live in cities, and have got ourselves and our children de-linked from the natural environment. Citizen science is an awesome way to address the imbalance. Citizen science gets us involved in searching for biodiversity. Go out into your garden with your camera and try to photograph the butterflies for LepiMAP. They seem few and far between. Childhood memories flood back: “I’m sure there were far more butterflies then. But I have no way of knowing whether it is the memory playing tricks or not. If numbers of butterflies are changing maybe I should get involved in a monitoring project to see how they are trending.”

Citizen science changes the way we engage with our environment. A recreational walk on the beach, up the mountain or through the bushveld can be a passive engagement. For the citizen scientist, it is an active engagement, searching for biodiversity. For the citizen scientist, recreational engagement is transformed to an active multidimensional engagement. Eyes are searching, ears are alert.

Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus), © Bart Wursten
Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus) © Bart Wursten

Recreational engagement, almost by definition, has to take place in pretty places. Citizen scientists quickly learn that the most important gaps in knowledge are in the non-recreational places. Citizen scientists tell the most amazing stories of biodiversity clinging on in places where people do not normally go looking for birds, or butterflies, or spiders. Citizen scientists rapidly learn that the best way to highlight the conservation value of the hotspots for biodiversity is to document what (little!) remains in the cold spots.

So citizen scientists do make a difference for biodiversity. It is not a quick fix difference. It is the long-haul difference. The careful accumulation of data through time generates large databases which can be examined for trends, to look at range contractions and range expansions. This is the hard way to do conservation, but it is the sure road.

The Animal Demography Unit believes that the best way to do biodiversity conservation is through enabling conservation decisions to be based on solid quantitative evidence. This evidence is in the vast volumes of data contributed by our citizen scientists.

Cape thick-tailed scorpion (Parabuthus capensis) © Paul Bester
Cape thick-tailed scorpion (Parabuthus capensis) © Paul Bester

Join us in celebrating Citizen Science Week, from 20 to 28 September. Details are on the Animal Demography Unit Facebook page.


Africa Geographic Travel
Animal Demography Unit

The Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town believes that the best way to achieve biodiversity conservation is through enabling conservation decisions to be based on solid quantitative evidence. The mission of the Animal Demography Unit is to contribute to the understanding of animal populations, especially population dynamics, and thus provide input to their conservation. We achieve this through mass citizen science participation projects, long-term monitoring, innovative statistical modelling and population-level interpretation of results. Visit our Facebook page to keep up to date with all the latest news.