The scientific establishment has found a cheap, efficient way to gather information about biological diversity and monitor the status of various life forms − the general public.
Until a few years ago, scientists engaged in protecting nature didn’t view the general public as a resource capable of assisting their research; the most they hoped for from the public was that people would study their findings and internalize the message of preserving biological diversity. But in recent years, the general public has increasingly been helping researchers to collect and analyze data, an endeavor known as Citizen Science.
Last week, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced a new program under which nature lovers will be invited to participate in identifying and defining new species of insects. Anyone who wants to can bring any insect he finds to the university’s national arachnological collection for study, and can even help determine its species. This program will enable scientists to monitor the status of various known species, and perhaps even to identify previously unknown ones.
Recognition of the growing importance of public involvement in scientific research also resulted in a conference devoted to this issue. The conference, held at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya two months ago, was sponsored by HaMaarag, Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment Program.
In truth, ordinary citizens have long been helping scientists in Israel. A prime example is the participation of amateur birdwatchers in surveys and observations that have provided a wealth of information about Israel’s various bird species and how they are faring. This is the field in which scientists around the world have been cooperating with the public the longest − ever since America’s National Audubon Society launched its annual bird survey 110 years ago.
Another prime example of such cooperation in Israel is the work of Agudat Hovevei Haparparim, the association of butterfly lovers. This group has played a key role in battles to protect open areas inhabited by rare species of butterflies. In one case, a construction plan near Hadera was even altered to protect such a species.
Fisherman, yachtsmen and recreational boaters have given scientists numerous reports in recent years about jellyfish movements and the presence of marine mammals off Israel’s coastline. Inter alia, the first sightings of a gray whale and a monk seal near Israel’s shores were reported to the Israel Marine Mammal Research & Assistance Center by volunteers.
A program to fight invasive species launched by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel two years ago has collected hundreds of reports of such species from the public. These reports were then analyzed by scientists to determine how each case should be dealt with. A great deal of information about various species of bats and reptiles has also been collected from the public in recent years via the Min Hasadeh website (http://wildisrael.com/drupal2/), which serves as a collaborative database on these species. The website’s information is supplemented by observations carried out by inspectors from the Israel Parks and Nature Authority.
A survey of scientific involvement by the general public that was published less than a year ago in the journal “Biological Conservation” found that monitoring bird species continues to be the most common form of involvement by non-scientists. Birdwatchers participate in creating maps and atlases that show where different species of birds are found; in conducting nesting surveys that enable scientists to monitor the stability of a given species’ population in a particular area, and thereby determine whether that species is in danger of extinction; and in conducting counts of birds found around their own homes. The latter activity has been particularly successful in Britain and the United States, where every year, some 15,000 people report on the different kinds of species that visit their feeders.
Israel also conducts counts of birds that visit home feeders, under the auspices of the Israeli Center for Yardbirds, founded by Shlomit Lifshitz and Doron Lahav. In this year’s count, the organization received more than 900 reports, which provide information about the situation of various bird species and the impact of invasive species.
The accuracy and quality of information that comes from the public isn’t uniform. But researchers who have examined the information provided by birdwatchers are convinced that birders make a significant contribution to scientific research and protecting nature. Reports submitted by volunteers about various species also help compensate for the chronic shortage of funding for scientific research into these species’ situations.
The scientific journal PLOS ONE recently published a paper that examined the accuracy of information about shark populations around the Pacific Ocean island of Palau that were monitored by more than 20 diving instructors over a period of five years. Australian researchers compared the data reported by these instructors, who received training from scientists, to the information obtained by attaching electronic transmitters to sharks − the standard scientific method, which is considered accurate and credible.
The study found a high correlation between these two types of monitoring. Moreover, the diving instructors’ reports helped scientists determine that there is a strong connection between ocean temperatures and the strength of ocean currents, on one hand, and the frequency of shark sightings at various locations along the island’s coast, on the other. These instructors, who make a living by guiding tourists who want to see the sharks, have thereby helped to ensure the animals’ future.