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Citizen science in conservation

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Between sessions at the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 26), the whistles and chatter of starlings should be played to remind delegates of the Danish dairy farmer, Peder Thellesen. Thellesen, who has no formal scientific training, may or may not be at the climate talks in person, but his work has been described as ‘a world-class example of the effects of climate change on the natural world.’ Between 1971 and 2015, Thellesen watched starlings on his farm, recording when they bred and the size of clutches and broods in 27 nesting boxes. He ringed a total of 12,450 birds (one in 16 of all the starlings ever ringed in Denmark) and found that they bred progressively later in the year, adding an extra day for every five years, as average seasonal temperatures increased. In a letter to the journal Nature, it was remarked: ‘As the language gap between scientists and the public widens, we find this work an inspiring reminder of the might of human curiosity.’

No less-a-feat than that of Thellesen’s patient, systematic observations of starlings was occurring at the same time in a suburban garden in Leicester. Jennifer Owen began hand-netting and recording butterflies with her children. A professional biologist, her curiosity was piqued by the biodiversity she saw around her and Malaise, pitfall and light traps were subsequently deployed. The inventory study that followed over the next 30 years, between 1972 and 2001, recorded 2,673 species of plants, fungi and animals. The 2,000 or so species of insect didn’t include any attempt to count or identify similar species in large groups, and when she did look at one such group in detail, she found seven species previously unrecorded in Britain and four, entirely new to science. When Owen published the interim findings in 1991 it was ‘the most complete account of the wildlife in a garden any in the world.’

‘Thellesen’s starlings’ and ‘Owen’s garden’ are exceptional, but they are examples of the individual curiosity that underlies citizen science: collaborative, crowd-sourced endeavours between professional and non-professional scientists. In the last two decades or so, citizen science has found its footing, and in environmental and biodiversity research it has flourished. In Britain, around 7.5 million volunteer-hours go into collecting biodiversity monitoring data every year. More than a million people have taken part in Open Air Laboratories (OPAL), a UK-wide citizen science initiative which began in 2007, carrying out soil, air, water, biodiversity, and climate surveys. More widely, half the 120 million records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility are thought to be from non-professional sources. Often, citizen science is an alliance of individuals, NGOs and academic groups. Volunteers might capture information on smartphones, transcribe handwritten records, categorise images or collect samples, for a myriad of taxa and environmental data, and datasets can be built up that extend over decades, at a national scale.

The value of such long-term datasets in understanding how species respond to a changing world is paramount and they are central to informing environmental management and policy. But they don’t lend themselves to the typical span of university research funding. Citizen science does so more easily. As an example, UK-based wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) began public-participation surveys in 1998, recording stag beetles and garden mammals. In 2003, it started the Living the Mammals survey, recording mammals in urban green spaces and this year the survey completes its 18th year. Over that time it has involved around 4,000 people, and its findings have informed reports such as the Office of National Statistics’ UK natural capital accounts and three State of Britain’s Hedgehogs reports. PTES also runs the National Dormouse – and Water Vole – Monitoring Programmes, set up in the 1990s and 2015 respectively, the Great Stag Hunt, recording stag beetles, starting in 1998, and surveys of traditional orchard, wood pasture and hedgerow habitats, which all rely on volunteers.

It’s recognised that citizen science can fill gaps in traditional sources of data, in areas such as the UNEP’s Sustainable Development Goals. Public-participation projects can harness enough collective curiosity and effort to enable studies that, in practice, couldn’t be achieved any other way. But its value is as much in its direct connection with individuals as it is in the science. If by ‘people’ we mean ‘everyone who isn’t a professional scientist’, involving people in science creates a loop: from people to science, to policy, to people.

If we are going to avoid the worst of the environmental crisis, we have to change how we live and the faster we do so, the better our prospects. If individuals invest in the science that drives policy, the next step – from policy to a change in individuals’ behaviour – becomes easier than if policy pushes in a linear fashion. Recording environmental quality in OPAL surveys or species’ abundance in PTES’ Living with Mammals survey connects people to their environment and fosters a sense of ownership and agency.

Through environmental citizen science, people become more aware of the green and blue space around them, of conservation concerns, and become more knowledgeable. Citizen science can benefit science, public understanding of policy, and people. It shows ‘the might of human curiosity.’

Written by David Wembridge, PTES Mammals Surveys Coordinator

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