Category Archives: Science communication

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

The Conversation

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

via 3AW website

A funny thing happened last Thursday

A mysterious benefactor donated more than $2 billion to The Bog Roo Count. Well, almost.

A mysterious benefactor donated more than $2 billion to The Big Roo Count. Well, almost.

A funny thing happened last Thursday. For a brief hour or so Jenny and I became the custodians of billions of conservation dollars. ‘Huh?’, you say?

At approximately 12.30 pm the mysterious Jeffrey Green donated a little over $2 billion to our crowd-funding campaign. Sadly the money disappeared within an hour or so. We never really thought the donation was real, but it was fun to think what it might mean for both the Big Roo Count, and more broadly and importantly Australia’s biodiversity.

Professor Possingham has estimated that if federal and state governments invested $200 million a year we could secure all of Australia’s threatened species. So imagine what more than 500 times that would mean! To put things in perspective, the federal defence budget is roughly $26 billion a year. Stop its budget for three days and you could save all threatened species in Australia.

Imagine… we’re ready!

P.S. Jeff, if you really are keen to donate to our campaign we are ready to receive and make good!

The Big Roo Count

Help us conserve northern Australia's iconic mammals by supporting The Big Roo Count. Image credit: David Webb

Help us conserve northern Australia’s iconic mammals by supporting The Big Roo Count. Image credit: David Webb

Ten years ago, with my wife Jen, I was finishing up four years of fieldwork in some of Australia’s most remote and spectacular habitats. We had been lucky enough to be investigating the ecology and conservation of Australia’s tropical kangaroos and wallabies, collecting first-of-its kind information on where they each occurred, how big the populations were and why each species lived in certain areas and not others.

But a lot can change in ten years.

While Jen and I have been blessed with kids, health, happiness and more, our northern mammals haven’t been so lucky. Many are disappearing; some at alarming rates. Why? fires, feral cats and climate change are all likely causes.

We have a plan that will give us our best shot at conserving Australia’s northern kangaroos and wallabies.

This winter, we’re packing our kids and our tent into a four-wheel-drive for an epic journey of scientific discovery to find out how the roos are faring ten years down the track.

We’ll repeat all the work we did a decade ago at the same field sites:

  • roo counts,
  • mapping habitat and measuring its condition,
  • and the most glamourous job of all: counting and collecting kangaroo poos to get more information on which species live where.

This time, we will also be packing exciting new technology including remotely-triggered camera traps.

It’s rare for ecologists to have long-term information like this. Our data will tell us what we are up against in the battle to conserve our native kangaroos, wallabies and other native fauna in the same region. We’ll also take every opportunity to talk with as many people as we can about the conservation issues facing northern Australia’s mammals.

“Euan Ritchie’s re-survey of kangaroos and wallabies across northern Australia 10 years on from his foundational PhD survey is fundamentally important research. Nobody but Euan can undertake the work, and I’m profoundly grateful that he’s willing to do it.” — Professor Tim Flannery

Following the outstanding success of my crowdfunded research project on Papua New Guinea’s remote mountain mammals, we are again partnering with Pozible to bring this project to life. With your generous support, we’ll be able to hire a four-wheel-drive and buy the remote camera traps we need to do this important work.

For more information, a video, regular updates and to pledge your support, visit pozible.com/bigroocount.

Please help us conserve Australia’s iconic northern kangaroos and wallabies. Please support The Big Roo Count!

Belinda Christie: Increasing the success of conservation outcomes

Guest blogger: Belinda Christie

Guest blogger: Belinda Christie

I often ponder why, when we have so much scientific information about how our natural environment is deteriorating and more importantly what we can do to reverse it, does so little change? In fact it’s rapidly getting worse.

Perhaps it’s not just about what we (including scientists) know but just as importantly what we value, and how do we increase and improve the connection between information, values and actions?

Deakin University PhD candidate and guest contributor Belinda Christie offers some interesting thoughts.

Recently, I attended a public forum in Melbourne. After the forum ended, the queues forming behind the food stalls grew quickly. As I waited for my cuppa, I noticed one of the forum’s guest speakers placing his lunch order. He was a marine biologist, who just a few minutes earlier, had presented evidence for the need to increase the number of Australia’s marine national parks. I was surprised, perhaps naïvely, when I heard him order a tuna roll. Was I now more, or less, convinced by the evidence he had presented? I wasn’t sure.

When a marine ecologist orders tuna sushi...

When a marine ecologist orders tuna sushi we might start to examine the connection between the science we teach and the science we practice.

Our daily experience provides many examples of this disconnection between the professional and the personal: the smattering of nurses standing outside the hospital smoking, the personal trainer welcoming clients at the gym while snacking on a bag of potato chips, the academic writing an article about sustainability while sitting with the heater blasting in her very draughty office. There is often a disconnection between working and living the lessons of our professions. This disconnection is of particular importance in environmental science.

There is a common, but misleading, assumption made by both academics and the public that environmental sustainability ‘belongs’ to the sciences, and so, the belief follows, that students of the environmental sciences already learn much about environmental sustainability. We assume that environmental science students learn about the social and economic aspects of their field. We assume they learn about carbon footprints and sustainable lifestyles. We also assume that all ecologists, environmental managers and conservation biologists received such an education.

Research suggests otherwise. Recent research has shown that of all the disciplines, academics from the sciences are the least supportive of environment and sustainability education for all university students, rarely teach these issues in their own classes and have the most difficulty articulating the meaning of sustainability. While environmental science academics might spend time teaching their students about environmental policy and management, few actively educate their students for sustainability by cultivating the knowledge, skills and values to contribute to a more sustainable society.

But what would be the effect if all those studying environmental science courses were intentionally, and explicitly, educated for sustainability? Would this influence the success of future conservation outcomes? Would this effect be positive, negative or somewhere in between?

The answers to these questions probably hinge on your view of the purpose of science itself. You may fear that conservation recommendations will not be taken seriously unless they come from a seemingly neutral, detached and passionless scientist. You may feel that those recommendations should be, as much as possible, removed from politics, public sentiment and cultural context, so they can be seen as ‘objective’ and beyond influence.

Conversely, you may feel that perhaps the public, industry and politicians would be more likely to support a scientist’s recommendations if they are seen to follow their own advice and are a passionate advocate for change. You may feel that conservation recommendations should be aligned with the current political, economic, social and cultural landscape of the community, so that the recommendations are more likely to be accepted.

You may feel, like many others, including some of our best known and most influential scientists, that it is wise to occupy the ground between the two extremes.

Some years ago I was involved in a program which intended to decrease the occurrence of wildlife poaching in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. While it was informed by conservation recommendations from biologists and ecologists, the program was largely unsuccessful. The recommendations had failed to cater for the entrenched economic and cultural practices of the local community – the use, and trade, of traditional medicines harvested, often fatally, from wildlife.

While considering the social and economic context of conservation recommendations is already well practiced by many, it wasn’t until the biologists, ecologists and volunteers who had designed the program, publically pledged to adopt the recommended sustainable behaviours personally, and stopped using medicines derived from wildlife, that poaching in the area started to decrease. Without this element of ‘social diffusion’, or peer influence, the program may never have been successful. Had those biologists and ecologists learnt about sustainable living practices within the context of their own culture during their undergraduate education, perhaps the program would have been more influential earlier on.

Educating environmental science students for sustainability however, should be evidence-based, rigorous and preserve the integrity of research. It should take heed of the concerns of those who warn educating for a purpose is akin to indoctrinating students. It can do this by encouraging deep critical reflection so students can learn to assess the concept of the sustainability itself. Doing so can, and should, move an environmental science degree beyond merely providing a professional qualification, to inspiring students to lead by example and to make a measurable difference in their world.

I like to think that if the marine biologist at the forum received such an education, perhaps he would have skipped the tuna roll, and I wouldn’t have been left questioning his conservation recommendations.

Twitter: revolutionising scientific communication one hashtag at a time

Twitter is uniting scientists and science communicators one hashtag at a time.

Twitter is uniting scientists and science communicators one hashtag at a time.

Social media platforms, such as Twitter, have revolutionised the ability of scientists to communicate and engage with the public and, indeed, also amongst themselves.

It’s quite staggering and indeed wonderful to see how many scientists (new tweeps) are jumping on board each week. Twitter now supports a massive on-line community of researchers with ‘member’ numbers that dwarf even the biggest of professional and more traditional societies. Viva la revolución! And if you’re still not convinced social media is for you, just take a look at this infographic as further evidence why you should be.

Infographic: Twitter’s Role In Science Publication And Communication. Image credit: Catherine Pratt via katiephd.com and visual.ly. Click for a larger version.

Infographic: Twitter’s Role In Science Publication And Communication. Image credit: Catherine Pratt via katiephd.com and visual.ly. Click for a larger version.

One question I’m often asked about Twitter is: where do I start? It is indeed a deep, deep ocean of conversations and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this. So where are the people and discussions you want to know about as opposed to the ones it’s best to avoid? Well, one of the great features of Twitter is hashtags. Hashtags serve as permanent and searchable records; ‘libraries’ of topics of interest. So if you want to know the answer to that burning question: what’s the difference between a pigeon and a dove, than you might do best to check out and post your own message on #ornithology. Of course having said that I’m yet to hear a convincing answer for that question! But it is remarkable how quickly questions on Twitter are answered, often it’s a matter of seconds, and in my humble opinion it’s now approaching being a more powerful and reliable source of information than Wikipedia. Indeed questions and their answers are often subject to a form of rigorous, real-time peer review. But if you care not for birds, and statistics is what really gets you out of bed each day, take a look at #rstats. Personally, I think one of the best features of hashtags is their ability to establish ongoing support groups. So if for instance you’re struggling with your PhD and need a little advice or just a friendly pep talk consider jumping on #phdchat.

So having sold the virtues of Twitter and the use of hashtags, here are some of the most common ones I know of, grouped into broad themes. I haven’t explained in detail what each one is as diving in and exploring for yourself is part of the fun. My list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order of importance or popularity, so please post any good ones I’ve undoubtedly missed in the comments section. Having said that, please only suggest ones that are science-related. I’ll then collate and update my hashtag list and post it on my blog at a later date.

Biodiversity, ecological and environmental themes

Environmental policy discussions

Help with statistics and geographic information system (GIS)

Online communities

Science communication and public outreach

Wildlife photography and natural history

And to finish with and prove that scientists are not boring people, but instead very witty and even at times charming, romantic people, check these out!

Researchers worldwide are coming clean with the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods

Researchers worldwide are coming clean with the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods