A smart way to save wildlife

Ladybird photographed on smart phone (ladybird image shown by Ingo Arndt / NPL) Wildlife, smartly recorded

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Modernity is often the enemy of conservation, as our 21st-Century lifestyles put ever greater pressure on the natural world.

But some modern inventions may also hold the key to saving species in the future.

On Friday, scientists at the Zoological Society for London (ZSL) announced the launch of a new "bat phone" - not a superhero's tool but a smartphone app that ordinary folk can use to track the movements of local bat species.

It is an example of how conservationists are harnessing the power of smartphones, the internet, online crowd sourcing and social networks to keep track of the natural world.

Start Quote

Smartphones are the butterfly nets of the 21st Century”

End Quote Wall Street Journal describing Project Noah, a modern wildlife recording tool

Crucially, that involves encouraging the public to act en masse as field researchers, gathering data.

But can amateur natural historians, and the evidence they collect, really help save wildlife?

Rise of the net

Citizen science in not a modern phenomenon. For more than a hundred years, enthusiastic volunteers have assisted with the widespread recording of flora and fauna.

Traditionally, fieldwork performed by volunteers was overseen by a qualified expert or investigating scientist. Volunteers were friends, family, society members, passionate enthusiasts and those living and working in the survey area.

However, the internet has allowed projects to catch the public's attention as never before.

The bat phone in action (c) ZSL/BCT A "bat phone" can reveal which species are flying by

For example, the new iBat app has been developed for a global bat monitoring programme covering at least 16 countries.

Produced by an international team of experts, including ZSL and the Bat Conservation Trust, the app allows volunteers to detect and record more than 900 species of bat with the help of an ultrasonic microphone.

The rich soundscapes recorded are uploaded to a website that identifies each of the calls to build an accurate picture of bat populations, essential for future conservation efforts.

The BBC has also helped break new ground in using online mass participation surveys to record wildlife.

Common cuckoo (image: photolibrary.com) A fresh approach was taken to find out why cuckoos are declining

Springwatch and Autumnwatch, programmes with more than 2.5 million viewers, promote studies of the seasons, in particular the Woodland Trust's online survey Nature's Calendar, which has more than 50,000 participants.

For this survey participants are encouraged to submit the dates and locations of specific seasonal events, including the first bluebell blooms and the first autumn colours.

It is the largest of its kind in the UK. And since the data is used to track the arrival of the seasons, it has the potential to add to our knowledge of the local effects of climate change.

In 2009, Springwatch asked its viewers if they could help document the decline of the cuckoo.

An impassioned response saw 12,000 people inundate the programme's blog with the locations where they had heard the bird.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) helped process the audience's response, which varied from detailed co-ordinates to anecdotal approximations, while comments on the blog were used to create a map of cuckoo distribution that resembled that produced by the BTO's own Bird Atlas survey.

But public surveys of this kind have pros and cons.

Cuckoo distribution map (c) BTO The Springwatch cuckoo map: can blog comments constitute accurate data?

Online wildlife surveys can actually sever direct links between scientists and citizens. Anyone can engage with an internet-based project, so scientists that organise them must take a very hands-off approach, instructing volunteers using picture based guides or lists of FAQs.

Though more convenient, this runs the risk of unreliable data being gathered, as individuals interpret their findings differently.

The Springwatch cuckoo map, for example, did not meet the exacting standards of a truly scientific survey, says Graham Appleton, the BTO's director of communications.

"Sadly, we were unable to add the records to our database because we had no way to check the validity of each of the original reports [with] no clear chain back to the person reporting a cuckoo and because the geographical placement of some of the dots was not reliable," Mr Appleton tells BBC Nature.

In their own surveys, the BTO uses a team of local expert volunteers to double check any vague or surprising records, to keep their results at a high standard.

But efforts are being made to overcome these difficulties.

Scientists increasingly pay close attention to how they pose their questions and collect their data. And the BTO and BBC worked hard to improve their data gathering before the autumn of 2009, when Autumnwatch asked viewers to help survey tawny owl numbers.

"We learned from the cuckoo survey," says Mr Appleton. "This time, we collected precise information on location, using click and point mapping software, and information on the people who sent in records of hooting owls."

Tawny owl Records of hooting tawny owls reveal their numbers

The data was suitable for inclusion in the Bird Atlas and, by inviting viewers to record owl hoots at night, the BTO was able to extend the coverage of its survey outside of daylight hours.

"We were pleased to fill in a number of the gaps in the grid of 10km squares that cover the whole of the UK," Mr Appleton tells the BBC.

Virtual collections

Getting the public to collect hard evidence about a species' location or movement can vastly improve the information gleaned by scientists.

In Kenya, the Mara Predator Project invites tourists to submit lion sightings, to help monitor populations on selected reserves.

The project's website provides an ID guide to help interpret holiday snaps, so that researchers can track prides and individuals.

Start Quote

We've helped people learn about organisms they never knew existed and we've brought awareness to important work and research”

End Quote Yasser Ansari Founder, Project Noah

Meanwhile Project Noah is a global study that encourages nature lovers to document the wildlife they encounter, using a purpose built phone app and web community.

Launched early last year, the developers behind the project aim to reconnect people with nature, while the Wall Street Journal commented that smartphones were the "butterfly nets of the 21st Century" when it described the project.

"We've helped people learn about organisms they never knew existed and we've brought awareness to important work and research," says the project's founder Yasser Ansari.

"We've had visitors from 192 countries, nearly 94% of the world, and have photo submissions from all seven continents."

In addition to the virtual "collection" of species, Project Noah encourages citizen science by linking up with existing surveys including the International Spider Survey and the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

By submitting time-stamped, geographically tagged photographs to the site, users can contribute data to official monitoring programmes and studies.

Lion Lion sightings by tourists can help monitor populations of the big cats

However, when it comes to measuring whether the community is genuinely improving research, it is still early days, says Mr Ansari.

"We launched our current platform just a few months ago and have received a phenomenal response, but no research breakthroughs have been made yet," he says.

"I do think that breakthroughs can be made, but only time will tell."

Bridging the gap

However, citizen science has already been responsible for some notable natural history discoveries.

In the UK, iSpot by the Open University is a natural history social network that aims to help amateurs identify anything and everything from the natural world by putting them in touch directly with experts.

Start Quote

iSpot did not set out to be a source of research data, but in fact we have been so successful that we have generated useful scientific data as well as introducing people to natural history”

End Quote Professor Jonathan Silvertown iSpot Project Leader

Not initially designed to produce scientific results, the project has already identified two species previously unrecorded in the UK: a bee-fly (Systoechus ctenopterus) and euonymus leaf notcher moth (Pryeria sinica).

"It's important to say that iSpot did not set out to be a source of research data, but in fact we have been so successful that we have generated useful scientific data as well as introducing people to natural history," says Jonathan Silvertown, iSpot project leader and professor of ecology at The Open University.

"A dataset for shieldbugs observed on iSpot was recently validated by the expert who runs the national recording scheme for this group and it has now gone into the records of the National Biodiversity Network."

"We are sure that this is just the first of many datasets that will do this," he adds.

Professor Silvertown says organisations' hesitancy to embrace citizen research is understandable, because of the issues of interpretation and accuracy.

But he argues that involving the public in research is hugely valuable, particularly when that research is publicly funded.

Meanwhile Mr Ansari believes projects such as his own could be inspirational for the next generation of scientists.

"Think of our effort as training amateurs to become better nature observers... All scientists start off as amateurs," he says.

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