Citizen scientists and the Great Barrier Reef

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

If news bulletins explaining how climate change has devastated parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef leave you feeling impotent and depressed, maybe getting involved in one of several citizen science projects up there could help.

Researchers from Brisbane-based university QUT run several programs that are turning everyone from secondary school kids to tourists into marine scientists.

Statistician Erin Peterson, for example, designed the Virtual Reef Diver project to drive a new approach to monitoring and managing the Great Barrier Reef.

Members of the public can log on to the website and work through the collection of photographs, classifying the images as they go.

Less “virtual” divers and snorkellers can submit underwater images they have taken while out on the Reef for others to classify.

This work is vital.

“The main challenge that we were trying to address is that the Great Barrier Reef is huge,” says Peterson. “It costs a lot to monitor it all.”

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Researchers at work on the Great Barrier Reef. 


“But there are more than 65 different organisations out there collecting data on the reef – specifically images – all the time.

“Plus we have all these citizens out snorkelling or scuba diving, and everybody has an underwater camera now. 

“And so the idea was, can we bring together these image-based data from all these different sources, and learn more about what’s going on to get an estimate of coral cover.”

Once the data is in and classified, data scientists such as Peterson design statistical models to create a predictive map across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to ordinary lay people, the information is as up-to-date as possible.

Meanwhile, reef researcher Brett Lewis, at QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, has his sights set not on the Great Barrier Reef but its smaller cousins in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane. 

His work focusses on reefs in inner Moreton Bay to see how they cope with climate stress, and what that can tell us about the larger ecosystem to the north. 

Apart from climate, the bay reefs face challenges from sediments spilling from the Brisbane River. This is where Lewis’s work holds relevance for studying the effects of dredging on the Great Barrier Reef.

“One of the easiest things for us to do, and one of the most beneficial for the local area, is to understand how the corals are surviving sedimentation from the Brisbane River and this turbid environment,” he says. “And I have the techniques to be able to carry this out.”

For much of his work, Lewis uses time-lapse videography and other visual media to capture, in detail, the changes in corals.

When Iona College in the Brisbane bayside suburb of Wynnum reached out to see if he would help the students develop a marine science project, he said “yes” immediately.

To start with, Lewis gave students in years 9, 10 and 11 a crash course in scientific observation. Then, after helping them set up aquariums with corals, he gave them a project: create time-lapse videos of how corals deal with different forms of sedimentation, coarse and fine.

Not only did students get to run the experiments, they got to report on the results, learning to present at conferences.

“I wanted them to see the impact that their research can have rather than me saying that their research is going to have impact,” says Lewis. “They can visualise it for themselves and see that, yeah, it’s important that we also communicate.”

QUT’s Matthew Dunbabin and his team keep watch on the Great Barrier Reef – and other reefs around the world – using technology. He and his team last year launched RangerBot, an underwater drone that can monitor marine health and even take direct action – by identifying and destroying the devastating crown-of-thorns starfish.

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Researcher Matthew Dunbabin and RangerBot

RangerBot’s high-tech vision system allows it to “see” under water, a system that helped it win the 2016 Google Impact Challenge People’s Choice prize when it was still under development.

Having “trained” the RangerBot to take on the crown-of-thorns, QUT researchers are teaching it new tricks. In April they took it to the Philippines to help in reseeding reefs destroyed by dynamite fishing.

The project won Dunbabin and Southern Cross University’s Peter Harrison the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s $300,000 Out of the Blue Box Reef Innovation Challenge.

“We’re looking at a large-scale spreading of the coral spawn,” Dunbabin says.

“At the moment it’s a manual task, but we attach different payloads that hold bags of concentrated coral spawn after they’ve [been] reared and fertilised.”

Once that project has been assessed, Dunbabin will head back to the Great Barrier Reef for a similar project at the end of the year.

And there’s room in RangerBot’s work for the citizen scientist, too.

“We’ve set it up so that it can be used as a citizen science program,” he says. “We have a citizen science portal where we upload data that’s been collected and lay scientists can help identify crown-of-thorns starfish, helping to verify what the robot thought it saw.”

They are also working on another project they call the “coral point count” to engage the public where they can upload their own data from their own observations in a similar way to the Virtual Reef project.

“We’ve developed that with schools,” Dunbabin says. “We were lucky enough to get some money from the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Fund in Melbourne and the Dalio Foundation to engage high schools and other stakeholders.”

“High schools where students studied marine science were asked to use the technology and give us feedback on what they liked and how we can make it a useful tool. 

“So they actually helped guide the development of the interface for the robot and got an understanding of the technology, and used it as part of that assessment,” he said.

Professor Dunbabin says it is vital to keep people engaged so they don’t give up hope of keeping the reef vibrant.

“I think everybody has a role that can help protect the Reef,” he says. “People can actually be part of the science, where they’re analysing the data that helps them contribute to the protection of the reef.”

The virtual diver reef program launched by QUT.

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