How to be a citizen scientist
Anyone with a smartphone and internet access can help scientists monitor the health of ecosystems and animal habitats. LEONARD CRONIN profiles some of the ways you can contribute valuable information
e chorus frogs in the big lagoon Would sing their songs to the silvery moon
These lines by Banjo Paterson often come to me on summer evenings when our resident amphibians begin their nocturnal serenades. I must confess, however, to having difficulty identifying the owners of the quacks, pops, cricks and croaks.
Listening to frogs is one thing, but locating them in the dark is another. One way is to enlist the help of two friends to surround the calling frog, triangulate its position and close in together on the agreed spot. My preferred technique, however, is to whip out my smartphone, click on the Australian Museum’s citizen science FrogID app and make a short recording of the frog. This clever app asks questions about habitat and gives me a choice of likely species to listen to. Back home, I can add notes and photos, then upload the recording to the FrogID team, who positively identify the frog and add the information to their database.
My first experience using the app resulted in an email from a FrogID expert informing me that I’d managed to record a chorus of insects! I’ve since logged quite a number of species but nowhere near the 938 submissions of the top frogger.
I became interested in citizen science a few years ago after stumbling upon the results of The Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study, a joint initiative by Deakin University in Victoria and Queensland’s Griffith University. Little was known about the effects of feeding and watering birds in Australian urban areas, so the research team set up a website and advertised for gardeners around Australia to contribute to a series of online surveys monitoring birds that visited their backyard feeding areas and birdbaths. To the surprise and delight of the team, about 3000 people joined in, leading to research papers and much-needed guidelines around birdbaths and backyard feeding stations.
Citizen science was born in the
1990s when it became clear that, to better understand the natural world, scientists needed to collaborate with non-scientists to collect data and enlist their help to analyse the results.
The advent of the smartphone and fast internet services saw a boom in citizen science programs. There are now thousands of projects around the world, with an estimated 3.75 million participants.
Many of these involve gathering data about the distribution and abundance of plants and animals, while others engage people in the observation of astronomical objects and phenomena, or cyclic events such as the effects of global warming in different geographical areas. There are games and competitions, projects that relate to your backyard, programs that involve schools, and plans to enable citizen scientists to participate in space exploration by developing payloads to fly on suborbital vehicles.
New species and astronomical objects have been discovered through citizen science. We are learning about distribution and migration patterns of animals, the impacts of climate change and land use, while gaining a better understanding of how and why people interact with wildlife.
People taking part in citizen science projects are getting hands-on experience with practical science and engaging with professional scientists. I’ve been having a fascinating time, from recording frogs around my garden and the neighbourhood to surveying local birds, spotting koalas and echidnas, and joining a local seashore bioblitz. I’ve even spent time helping to classify corals on the Great Barrier Reef, and mapping brain neurons.