Citizen scientists supercharge conservation and biodiversity efforts

Citizen scientists supercharge conservation and biodiversity efforts

Mosquitoes circle after dark as our small group squelches through knee deep grass beside a small tributary of the Mooloolah River on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.  We’re part of what has become the world’s largest expert-verified project on frogs.

This project, called FrogID, was started by the Australian Museum in 2017 and has since engaged more than 40,000 people who have recorded frog calls using an app, resulting in almost one million scientific frog records and more than 22 scientific publications.

It isn’t easy.

Torches and headlamps illuminate the raindrops that are now falling. My shoes fill with water, but I don’t dare complain because these conditions are creating perfect weather for the frogs we’re seeking for the Australian Museum’s FrogID Project.

Leading this pack of eager citizen scientists are Nadiah Roslan, FrogID Project Coordinator, and Jessica Raintree, the Projects and Community Engagement Officer for Mooloolah River Landcare.

Nadiah rodlan outside and smiling at camera
Nadiah Roslan. Credit: Australian Museum

“So we can hear the ‘rick tick tick’ of the Eastern Dwarf Tree Frog,” says Roslan, as both the rain and the frog chorus intensify. “And I thought I heard one of the [Wallum] Rocket Frogs before.”

Roslan says one in five of Australia’s more than 240 frog species are threatened with extinction due to disease, habitat modification, climate change, pollution, invasive species and the wildlife trade.

FrogID aims to map a database of frog calls to document the true species’ diversity, distributions and breeding habitats of Australian frogs with high geographic coverage, and spatial, temporal and taxonomic accuracy. It will help to conserve them.

It wouldn’t have been possible without an army of citizens behind it. And that army is fully engaged.

Hands holding phone with frogid app on screen
FrogID recording a call.

The best way to accurately identify the species of a frog was through the male’s mating call, rather than its appearance, Roslan says. That’s because two frogs that look the same can be totally different species. For example, the Barrington Tops Tree Frog and the Green Stream Frog share the same Kermit green colour and golden streak extending from their eyes.

Equally, two frogs of the same species could look quite different – with one vulnerable Wallum Sedge Frog presenting with leaf green skin, while another’s is the colour of dark chocolate.

“The national-scale FrogID dataset is helping build our understanding of how frogs are responding to bushfire, drought, urbanisation, disease, and it has even helped uncover frog species new to science.”

The FrogID Project was one of dozens of citizen science projects showcased at the Australian Citizen Science Association Conference at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Sippy Downs campus this week.

More than 150 delegates gathered over the 3-day event to hear how some of the most significant challenges of the day were being tackled with the help of citizen science.

Nadiah roslan outdoors
Nadiah Roslan.

Dozens of speakers explored how citizen science could be used to boost biosecurity, enhance ghost gear recovery, map coral cover, monitor industrial noise from an open cut coal mine, advance public health, increase scientific literacy, analyse astronomical phenomena, and more.

But it’s in the area of conservation and biodiversity where citizen scientists arguably have the greatest impact, because only they can provide the extensive data that’s required.

For example, around 50% of the 115 million records in the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) were contributed by citizen scientists, according to a paper published in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice in September.

Speaking at the conference, Dr Fiona Fraser, Threatened Species Commissioner with the Federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, promised more Federal support for citizen science activities.

Fiona fraser smiling and holding lizard
Fiona Fraser.

Fraser says citizen scientists and community groups had played an important role in improving the trajectories of several threatened species under its first Threatened Species Strategy (2015–20).

The department’s new Threatened Species Action Plan (2022-2032) explicitly recognises the important role that citizen scientists play in research, data collection, and other areas.

“This is incredibly important, not least because many of our threatened species are data poor and additional knowledge helps us to better understand threats and to inform management,” Fraser says.

“Citizen science takes many shapes and forms – it’s very much a ‘choose your own adventure’,” she adds.

“Engagement and projects can range from one-offs short term to long term and longitudinal studies that can be local or national and even global in scale.

“So underneath the banner of [our] Action Plan, we intend to do what we can to support citizen science partners and initiatives.

“This ranges from supporting long term initiatives running through our department to funding shorter term threatened species projects, which includes citizen science participation.

“[It may also include] promoting the importance of citizen science endeavours as a vehicle for communicating the science of biodiversity conservation, and in the knowledge that they can be a pathway for behavioural change for participants.”

Fraser says she also makes a conscious effort to promote citizen science projects on her social media platforms “both to celebrate advances in knowledge and action, but also because they are excellent awareness-raisers and, frankly, they’re just very popular posts”.

Koala in tree
Credit: Maggie Muurmans

She identified the most popular social media post for last year as one featuring Baldy, a male Gang-gang Cockatoo in Canberra, who became the subject of a citizen science campaign as he went about raising chicks with his long-term partner.

Residents were asked to report any sightings of Baldy, who was easily recognisable due to distinctive damage to his crest.

“We now know more about Gang-gang cockatoo behaviour thanks to observations by citizen scientists,” Fraser says.

“From those sightings, one of the things we learned was that adult Gang-gangs with chicks on the nest can travel up to four kilometres from an active nest to feed.”

Citizen science was also central to koala conservation efforts in Queensland, says Maggie Muurmans, Senior Conservation Officer within the Queensland Department of Environment and Science’s Wildlife and Threatened Species Unit.

“Our survey team can only cover so many areas in Queensland,” Muurmans says.

“Citizen scientists are able to really get into all these different areas – especially with koalas [which] don’t always get recorded.”

Maggie muurmans in conference hall
Maggie Muurmans.

To encourage citizen scientists to report koala sightings, the Department of Environment and Science developed the award-winning QWildlife app.

The app allows people to record koala photos and locations to assist the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ensure their mapping is current and conservation efforts focused appropriately.

Other conference speakers discussed how citizen scientists were helping to conserve turtles, track the conservation status of wedge-tailed eagles and other raptors, and work with private landholders in Tasmania to protect the state’s natural heritage.

Fraser said that collective action involving citizen scientists was crucial in order to protect and recover threatened species for the future and to inform national policy.

“For some threatened species, there are citizen scientist groups who are important stewards and advocates for the species that they support,” she says.

“For other citizen scientists, these initiatives are a gateway for the unengaged to become involved.

“Contributing to and collecting on other observations can be the first step in raising awareness about our native wildlife and in caring for its future,” she says.

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