Spring is arguably Australia’s most accessible time for people to dust off their metaphorical lab coats and play the scientist as part of a range of citizen science initiatives, many with an ecological focus.
The most high-profile of these has just wrapped up, with thousands of Australians counting around four million birds as part of the annual Aussie Bird Count, a long-running engagement initiative run by not-for-profit Birdlife Australia.
The data obtained is substantial, but not necessarily verifiable, and so may not form the basis of further research by the nation’s avian experts. On the other hand, its focus on common suburban bird species does provide supporting data to local government planning and other consultatory work undertaken by Birdlife.
While it’s a particularly prominent initiative, there are several other citizen science programs taking place in spring, which encourage people to engage with their local ecosystems to collect animal data. Several have an added multimedia function that helps verify the collected data for inclusion in ongoing research.
Moths, possums and a season-long tracking web app
It’s a hard life being a threatened species, particularly if you wake up from a long slumber and there’s no food to eat – a situation being encountered more frequently by mountain pygmy possums.
As Australia’s only hibernating marsupial, these tiny possums spend the cold winter in Australia’s alpine regions dormant, before waking and searching for their primary food source – bogong moths.
But these moths, which are primarily found along Australia’s south-eastern regions, were recently declared endangered on the international IUCN Red List. This may be a precursor to a threat classification in Australia.
Bogongs experienced an estimated 99.5% decline in their number just five years ago.
The collapse of this insect species is an added pressure to the critically endangered possum, which is already dealing with habitat loss and degradation due to historic ski resort development, climate change impacts and severe bushfires.
The non-arrival of much of the bogong fleet in 2017 and 2018 resulted in the loss of more than half of possum litters. In response, scientists at Zoos Victoria developed dietary supplements for possums – Bogong Bikkies – which mimic the nutritional content supplied by a bogong diet.
While this might mitigate the worst impacts of moth decline, it’s no substitute for the real thing. To improve their understanding of bogong moth migration, an online Moth Tracker initiative was developed by Zoos Victoria three years ago to improve understanding of these insects.
People living in Australia’s eastern states who spot a bogong moth are encouraged to take a picture, upload it to the tracker and report how many moths were present at the sighting.
Zoos Victoria’s researchers then verify and log the observation.
“That way we can track the migration of the bogong moths, we can learn things like where they are being seen, when they are travelling and in what numbers [and] what that season might hold for the mountain pygmy possums,” says reproductive biologist Dr Marissa Parrott, who leads Zoos Victoria’s possum recovery team.
“It can also tell us areas where the moths are being drawn down to – things like lights or cities – and so we can then look at mitigating those threats in these areas for the moths as well.
“The more we learn about the bogong moth, the more we can help it. It [Moth Tracker] is something so simple to be involved in.”
Frog ID helps to sound out amphibians
Australian frogs – of which more than 20% are recognised as threatened – face many similar threats as other species, such as climate change, habitat destruction, predation by introduced species, natural hazards and urbanisation.
On top of this, diseases like chytrid fungus add another layer of danger for frog species. This disease disrupts their ability to absorb oxygen and electrolytes through their porous skin. It is likely responsible for the global extinction of over 90 species.
Despite frogs’ widespread distribution in every Australian ecosystem, scientists are still building their knowledge of these elusive amphibians, which are often heard, but not seen.
To improve understanding of these species and where they live, the Sydney-based Australian Museum created the FrogID initiative to build a national database of frog calls.
Using the FrogID smartphone app, the public can upload recordings of local frog calls to an Australian Museum database.
A team of trained ‘listeners’ then identifies the species behind the call, logs the GPS data and updates the entry on the user’s account.
Assembling verified data allows frog scientists to understand changes to species populations over time. These could be gradual declines over a longer period, or massive collapses due to single, devastating events.
The project’s coordinator Nadiah Roslan says the initiative is plugging data gaps for more than 200 described species.
“With the help of thousands of people essentially eavesdropping on frogs calling around Australia, we have been able to make a lot of new discoveries and find answers that would otherwise not be attainable without the help of people recording,” says Roslan.
“Over time, the more records we get through FrogID, the more understanding we can get of how populations are changing over time. Things like the devastating Black Summer bushfires, FrogID actually was one of the first… or only studies to reveal how frogs are persisting in the short-term [following that event].
“FrogID data was the first to provide the evidence of green tree frog decline around Sydney. There was a lot of anecdotal evidence of that over the years, but it wasn’t until thousands of people recording frog calls that we have the first hard evidence of this decline.”
Conversely, the app has been useful for increasing available call data for threatened species like the Sloane’s froglet of inland New South Wales and the Kuranda Tree Frog in Far North Queensland.
Citizens supporting science
The digital age has helped professional scientists reach out to the public for support to obtain data.
One of the earliest such projects was another avian-targeting initiative – the Christmas Bird Count started by the US National Audubon Society, which started in 1901.
iNaturalist, a global project started by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, is an online database of plant, animal and fungi sightings from around the world. Observations are verified by community consensus agreed on by at least two-thirds of contributors.
The platform also provides scientists the opportunity to download the data for analysis.
Other nature-based projects are more traditional, involving volunteers manually recording information in the field to log ecosystem characteristics.
But citizen science projects aren’t strictly limited to nature-based initiatives. Among nearly 650 projects listed on the Atlas of Living Australia’s project finder are ones targeting astronomy, chemistry, climate and meteorology, genetics, geology and technology enthusiasts.
Giving people who are interested or experienced in science, but without formal qualifications the opportunity to engage with the discipline is something Parrott believes is essential to bridge the gap between trained professionals and the public.
“I think citizen science really comes into its own where something in someone’s own backyard in Southern Queensland for example, can affect the survival of a baby possum in its mother’s pouch up in Victoria,” she says.
“It also helps us to gain data over a very wide area that scientists just couldn’t get to otherwise. That means the citizens are all the scientists – they’re gathering the data, they’re helping us, and that’s helping species.”
Moth Tracker is an ongoing initiative during spring, FrogID week will be held from 11-20 November 2022.
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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