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

Thousands of citizen scientists are identifying animals from millions of images taken by automated cameras across Australia. Join in the fun at the Wildlife Spotter website. Image credit Shane Lin via Flickr

Thousands of citizen scientists are identifying animals from millions of images taken by automated cameras across Australia. Join them at the Wildlife Spotter website. Image credit Shane Lin via Flickr

By 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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article online, including reader comments.

The Conversation

 

 

Honours projects for 2017

Looking for an exciting honours project in ecology? I have four openings for 2017.

I also welcome other project ideas from students if they fit with my expertise and research priorities.

To find out more, please refer to the Deakin University website: Honours in Life and Environmental Sciences, or contact me.

Ecosystem ecology: understanding interactions between predators, prey, and fire in Victoria’s Big Desert-Wyperfeld region

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External Supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Tom Newsome (Deakin University)

Start date: February 2017

The Australian dingo, Canis lupus dingo. Image courtesy Angus McNab.

Dingoes and wild dogs are top predators in northwest Victoria’s national parks. Image credit: Angus McNab.

Northwest Victoria’s conservation reserves are key flagship areas home to high species diversity, including many species of conservation concern. Within this region, wild canids (dingoes/wild dogs), the top predators, are patchily distributed, being relatively common in the Big Desert-Wyperfeld region, but largely absent from the northern Murray Sunset and Hattah-Kulkyne national parks.

Wild canids, like other top predators worldwide, are known to be critical in influencing species throughout the ecosystems in which they occur. However, it remains to be determined what role(s) dingoes/wild dogs perform in Big Desert-Wyperfeld.

Specifically, do they regulate populations of overabundant herbivores (e.g. kangaroos) and/or invasive predators (e.g. cats and foxes), and does this in turn benefit native prey species (e.g. hopping mice)?

We will examine the role(s) of wild canids by surveying their distribution and abundance in the Big Desert-Wyperfeld region, and relating it to that of other key species of conservation and/or pest management concern.

This will be achieved through a combination of remote camera trapping, sand pads, scat counts and giving up density experiments.

Predators, prey and fire in Wilsons Promontory National Park

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External Supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

Start date: July 2017

Wilsons Prom is home to native mammals such as the Swamp Wallaby, Wallabia bicolor. Image by Toby Hudson [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilsons Prom is home to native mammals such as the Swamp Wallaby, Wallabia bicolor. Image credit Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

Fire and predation are key processes that shape the structure and function of ecological communities. Despite their importance, few studies have examined how they may interact to affect the distribution, abundance and habitat preferences of species across different habitats.

This project will examine the effects of fire and predation on mammals in Wilsons Promontory National Park (which contains one-third of Victoria’s mammal species).

This work is supported by a Parks Victoria research partnership.

Fox, cat and fire interactions in the Grampians National Park

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Associate Professor John White (Deakin University), Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

Start date: February or July 2017

Foxes are invasive predators in the Grampians. Image credit: Dan Derrett via Flickr

Foxes are invasive predators in the Grampians. Image credit: Dan Derrett via Flickr

This project, a research partnership between Parks Victoria and Deakin University, will examine fox and cat distribution across the Grampians National Park. Specifically, it will aim to:

  1. Determine the most effective way to survey these invasive predators, using a combination of camera traps and scat counts.
  2. Examine the effect of fire on fox and cat habitat use.
  3. Examine how foxes and cats are associated with native mammals (as part of an ongoing, long-term study led by Associate Professor White).

The ecological role of eastern barred bandicoots in a newly established island population

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Dr Duncan Sutherland (Phillip Island Nature Parks) and Dr Amy Coetsee (Zoos Victoria)

Start date: February or July 2017

Eastern barred bandicoots persist only in captivity or within fox-free nature reserves. Image credit JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern barred bandicoots persist only in captivity or within fox-free nature reserves. Image credit JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Mainland eastern barred bandicoots (EBBs) are listed as extinct in the wild, persisting only in captivity or within fox-free fenced reserves.

Phillip Island Nature Parks, together with Zoos Victoria and the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team, are conducting an experimental release of EBBs onto fox-free Churchill Island, adjacent to Phillip Island, which lies outside the known historic range of the species.

This project forms part of a broader effort to bring the EBBs back from the brink of extinction and off the threatened species list.

We are seeking an honours student for a project to experimentally determine the role of EBBs as ecological engineers and to continue a monitoring programme into the survival rates, reproductive success and habitat use of EBBs.

The project will involve soil and habitat assessments, live-trapping, radio-tracking and camera trapping.

The candidate will require a manual driver’s licence. Field accommodation on Phillip Island is available.

Crying wolf: limitations of predator–prey studies need not preclude their salient messages

Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Jannik Schultner, Dale G Nimmo, Joern Fischer, Jan Hanspach, Tobias Kuemmerle, Laura Kehoe and Ine Dorresteijn

Published in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, volume 283, issue 1834 (July 2016)

A rapidly growing body of the literature reveals the important roles apex predators play in shaping the composition and functioning of ecological communities worldwide.

The principal effects of apex predators — namely herbivore and mesopredator population suppression — are often evident following their removal from environments, or their reintroduction, including rewilding initiatives. What remains less clear, however, is to what extent humans versus other apex predators affect ecosystems, how both interact across gradients of anthropogenic pressure and how such interactions can be affected by underlying bottom-up processes.

Such questions are critical to answer in the Anthropocene, where effective management of ecosystems and conservation of biodiversity requires a better understanding of how top-down and bottom-up processes vary according to anthropogenic influences…

Ritchie EG, Schultner J, Nimmo DG, Fischer J, Hanspach J, Kuemmerle T, Kehoe L, Dorresteijn I (2016) Crying wolf: limitations of predator–prey studies need not preclude their salient messages, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 283:1834 PDF DOI

Concordance in phylogeography and ecological niche modelling identify dispersal corridors for reptiles in arid Australia

Authors: Jane Melville, Margaret L Haines, Joshua Hale, Stephanie Chapple and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Journal of Biogeography (early access)

Abstract

Using the rock-specialist agamid Ctenophorus caudicinctus as a model, we test hypothesized biogeographical dispersal corridors for lizards in the Australian arid zone (across the western sand deserts), and assess how these dispersal routes have shaped phylogeographical structuring in arid and semi-arid Australia.

We sequenced a c. 1400 bp fragment of mtDNA (ND2) for 134 individuals of C. caudicinctus as well as a subset of each of the mtDNA clades for five nuclear loci (BDNF, BACH1, GAPD, NTF3, and PRLR). We used phylogenetic methods to assess biogeographical patterns within C. caudicinctus, including relaxed molecular clock analyses to estimate divergence times. Ecological niche modelling (Maxent) was employed to estimate the current distribution of suitable climatic envelopes for each lineage.

Phylogenetic analyses identified two deeply divergent mtDNA clades within C. caudicinctus – an eastern and western clade – separated by the Western Australian sand deserts. However, divergences pre-date the Pleistocene sand deserts. Phylogenetic analyses of the nuclear DNA data sets generally support major mtDNA clades, suggesting past connections between the western C. c. caudicinctus populations in far eastern Pilbara (EP) and the lineages to the east of the sand deserts. Ecological niche modelling supports the continued suitability of climatic conditions between the Central Ranges and the far EP for C. c. graafi.

Estimates of lineage ages provide evidence of divergence between eastern and western clades during the Miocene with subsequent secondary contact during the Pliocene. Our results suggest that this secondary contact occurred via dispersal between the Central Ranges and the far EP, rather than the more southerly Giles Corridor. These events precede the origins of the western sand deserts and divergence patterns instead appear associated with Miocene and Pliocene climate change.

Melville J, Haines ML, Hale J, Chapple S, Ritchie EG (2016) Concordance in phylogeography and ecological niche modelling identify dispersal corridors for reptiles in arid Australia. Journal of Biogeography PDF DOI

 

3AW: Deakin University ecologist calls for Australians to eat differently

I spoke with Tom Elliot on 3AW Drive. My topic: Australians should consider eating kangaroos and camels as opposed to sheep and cows. Maybe one day in the future, introduced pests such as cane toads and European carp could end up on our dinner plates, instead of wreaking havoc with our environment.

Nutritious, delicious... cane toad!? Image credit Brian Gatwicke via Wikimedia Commons

Nutritious, delicious… cane toad!? Image credit Brian Gatwicke via Wikimedia Commons

3AW website

The Conversation: Eat locals: swapping sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels could help our environment

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Adam Munn (University of New South Wales)

A six-legged diet? Insects are often high in protein and low in fat, and can be produced in large numbers, efficiently and quickly. Image credit Shutterstock

A six-legged diet? Insects are often high in protein and low in fat, and can be produced in large numbers, efficiently and quickly. Image credit Shutterstock

We may be what we eat, but our dietary choices also affect the health of the environment, and farmers’ back pockets.

Energy and water use, native habitat cut down for crops and grazing, and emissions that exacerbate climate change, are just some of the profound effects agriculture has on Earth. And, there are more and more mouths to feed.

Perversely, both starvation and obesity are severe health issues across the world. With agriculture confronted by economic and environmental uncertainties, society faces enormous challenges.

But challenges also offer great opportunities. Drastically rethinking what we eat, and where and how food is produced, could help our health, the planet, and our farming businesses.

That means eating fewer sheep and cows, and more kangaroos, feral animals, and insects.

Unsustainable farming

Australia’s rangelands — the drier regions of the country predominantly used for livestock and grazing — cover about 80% of the country. They are often in poor condition and economically unviable. In part, this is due to the fact we still farm many animals, mostly in ways that are unsuited to the Australian climate and environment.

Hard-hoofed animals contribute to soil compaction and erosion, and have even been linked to the spread of the invasive cane toad. But the environmental impact of intensive stock farming extends much further.

Continuing to farm using a European-derived, intensive system is a recipe for land degradation and environmental collapse, especially with the compounding impacts of climate change (severe weather events, more frequent and intense droughts, and fires).

Past and current agricultural practices have also profoundly altered our environment. It may be impossible to restore these lands to their original condition, so we must learn to operate in the new environment we’ve created.

More broadly, many experts have identified our meat consumption and intensive farming as a significant driver of global problems.

Treading lightly

To address these issues, we need a cultural shift away from intensive agriculture. The days of riding and relying on the sheep’s back, cattle’s hoof, or the more recent, and increasingly popular, chicken’s wing, may need to pass.

Native wildlife and some feral animals tread more lightly on the environment than intensively produced livestock do, and thus provide more sustainable options for food production on Australia’s arid lands. Kangaroos and goats place one-third of the pressure on grazing lands compared with sheep.

We already eat some of these animals, but could arguably eat more of them, including feral goats, camels, deer, rabbits, pigs, and buffalo, as well as native emus and kangaroos.

Yet more extreme proposals could include feral donkeys, cats, horses; and even cane toads. Horses are already consumed in Europe and cats in central Australia.

Eating more feral and native animals, and relying less on chicken, sheep, domestic pigs, and cattle would help meet ethical concerns too. Wild animals such as kangaroos are killed quickly, without the extended stress associated with industrialised farming, containment, and transportation to abattoirs.

And by harvesting sometimes overabundant wild native animals (such as kangaroos) and feral species, we may be able to reduce their impacts on ecosystems, which include overgrazing and damage to waterways.

An even greater leap would be to eat fewer four-limbed animals and more six-legged creatures. Insects are often high in protein and low in fat, and can be produced in large numbers, efficiently and quickly. They are already consumed in large numbers in some regions, including Asia.

Evidence that a market for such a food revolution exists is that shops are already popping up selling mealworm flour, ant seasoning salt, and cricket protein powder, among other delicacies.

Boom and bust

Thanks to Australia’s variable climate, swinging between drought and flood, many farms are also tied to a boom-and-bust cycle of debt and credit.

As the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable, this economic strategy must be detrimental to the farmers, and is shown by many farm buy-backs or sell-offs.

It makes sense to use species that are naturally more resilient and able to respond to boom-and-bust cycles. Kangaroos and other species can forage on our ancient and typically nutrient-poor soils without the need for nutritional supplements (such as salt licks), and are physiologically more efficient at conserving water. This could lead to a more sustainable supply of food and income for farmers, without the dizzying economic highs but also without the inevitable prolonged and despairing lows.

Future-proofing

To be clear, we are not suggesting completely replacing livestock, but diversifying and tailoring enterprises to better suit Australia’s environment.

To support more diverse agricultural enterprises we will need to overcome many obstacles, such as licences to hunt, what we’re comfortable consuming, and land use regulation. But we shouldn’t shy away from these challenges. There are tremendous opportunities for rural, regional and Indigenous communities, and indeed cities too.

We need a more diverse mix of meat to adapt to the pressures of a growing population and climate change. Supermarket aisles that display beef, chicken, pork and lamb, alongside kangaroo, camel, deer, goat, and insects, could be just what the environmental, health and economic doctors ordered.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article online, including reader comments.

The Conversation