I devour the Bowerbird Bugle every month. Each edition, Ken Walker curates stories about how citizen scientists are making new discoveries in their backyard. One of the best examples is the discovery of the invasive miomantis caffra in a suburb of Geelong – and the subsequent records of it around the Melbourne area. The Bowerbird community was contributing to the data available out there out range extensions, curious behaviour and even discovering new species.
Many of these discoveries are made by people like myself who love exploring nature and looking for anything interesting. Often I don’t understand the context of what I’m seeing, or even what the species it. I just like documenting it because it is fascinating.
In late August, ecologist Manu Saunders shared her experiences about species that are unknown to science. The following point really stood out.
Despite all these collection records, there is hardly any published information on the ecology of this species. It’s a resin bee, but what plant resins does it prefer? Where does it nest? How long does it live? What flowers does it usually forage on? How does it interact with other bee species? Is it an important pollinator for any particular plant species?
That is something I have also been noticing as I’ve been learning more about plant and animal information out there. There are many brilliant resources out there to help with identification but in many cases, there is limited knowledge.
I’m involved field naturalist clubs and the birdwatching community. I also follow conversations about citizen scientist. My hunch – emphasis on it being hunch – is that there are people out there making the observations. They just:
- don’t know the important of what they are seeing
- don’t know who to share the information with
The main problem? The citizen science community is fragmented
By the start of 2016, I had built up a huge database of flora and fauna that needed identification. I had found a lot of diversity when bushwalking, birding and exploring rockpools. I just didn’t know what to do with it. I started posting on Bowerbird but it was an intense learning curve. I didn’t know what groups would get more response or what specific experts could help. As my journey progress, I discovered additional methods to get identifications.
There are niche Facebook groups dedicated to identification. There are apps such as Questagame. You can email various museums to seek help from their experts. My experience is that there are a lot of experts out there who are willing to help. However, it can be hard knowing what the best method is to seek an ID.
As someone that is trying to learn more about local ecology with the guidance of experts (on social media and through my field naturalists club), getting an identification can be bloody hard. There are so many unnamed things in my Flickr account because I just don’t have the time to seek an identification. A certain level of knowledge is required to know what order or family a species belongs to, let alone the best place to ask. It can take hours, consulting multiple books and posting in a couple of communities before you can find the right person.
It’s overwhelming. And that is going to be an obstacle for amateurs seeking help.
I’m a smart cookie. I’m savvy about social media and have many informal mentors who have given me guidance when seeking help. Not everyone has the resources that I do, though. If I’m struggling, others will be too.
One of the things I emphasis with science communications is that you need to make it as easy as possible to the reader to take action. The core issue is that currently, it is not easy to know what to do with your ecological observations.
I can identify two main needs at the moment:
- There is no *one* place to direct people at the start of their journey. There are a couple of agreed upon resources but people have to decide the best process themselves
- Some things are getting identified but the specific data isn’t being used. A museum expert or member of a Facebook group will make an identification, but the information is stuck within that conversation.
The first need focuses on making it as simple as possible. The second? Making sure the information that is uncovered gets to the right people.
How can we solve this?
This where my advice, for now, is lacking. I believe that there should be a centralized hub, or one website, that curates all the resources necessary for seeking identifications.
I could create it but I’m just one person with a very basic understanding. I’d totally be up for it if I could get guidance from the wider community. I’d need help on the best domain name and could have a basic example up within a couple of days.
I also believe that scientists and ecologists should try and direct people to just one place when it comes to identification. I also think that adding reports to Bowerbird should be encouraged if anyone notices interest reports on social media. This should be encouraged by the community itself, as the experts aren’t available to monitor every channel.
Over to you
What do you think? I’m approaching this from my perspective as a citizen scientist, but I am not abreast of many of the developments in the citizen science community.
Are there anyways you’d like things to change?