Citizen Science Comes of Age

coral reef fish plastic

Increasingly, scientists are relying on data gathered by volunteers to make their research happen.

A team of seven scuba divers crawled along the seafloor in a shallow bay off Tasmania, Australia, parting tufts of seaweed and peering under small rock ledges as they hunted for a rosy-hued fish scarcely bigger than a mouse with a pouty face, hand-like pectoral fins, and a posture reminiscent of a frog’s.

The divers, five of whom were trained volunteers with an Australia-based citizen science group called Reef Life Survey, had already spent many hours underwater searching after receiving a tip from the public about a sighting of the critically imperilled species.

Now, after more than two hours without luck, it appeared they were on another fruitless excursion. They were ready to call it quits when Antonia Cooper, of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, came mask to snout with her team’s quarry: a red handfish, one of just several dozen individuals believed to survive. The group doubled down on their hunting and quickly found seven more of the animals.

The discovery in 2018 prompted the creation of the Handfish Conservation Project, a national effort to protect red handfish and their two isolated patches of Tasmanian habitat, as well as their endangered relatives—the spotted handfish and the Ziebell’s handfish.

Citizen Scientists

The event was also noteworthy for another reason: it might not have been possible without the volunteer labor of citizen scientists. Rick Stuart-Smith, a cofounder of Reef Life Survey and one of the divers who discovered the new red handfish population, says the collective effort that it took to find the rare fish outweighed what he and his university colleagues might have been able to accomplish in the absence of volunteers.

He says teams of trained volunteer divers scoured about 30 underwater locations in Tasmania, specifically searching for red handfish, before succeeding. Their work allowed Stuart-Smith and his team to know for sure that the species was in real trouble. “Citizen science was critical for the conservation of this species,” he says.

Around the world, research by citizen scientists is coming into its own. Their involvement has graduated from an elementary level public education platform into a critical research tool for monitoring endangered species and documenting the massive environmental changes now sweeping the planet.

Global warming and ocean acidification are causing entire ecosystems, including coral reefs and kelp forests, to collapse, while, in many places, species’ geographical ranges are shifting toward the poles as water temperatures rise. Human actions spur the spread of invasive species, and countless creatures are growing rarer and slipping toward extinction.

International Collaboration

These changes are occurring at scales that scientists and conservationists have never tackled before, says John Cigliano, a marine ecologist at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And the changes are happening so quickly, and in so many places at once, that professional researchers and university scientists—often constrained by publishing deadlines, funding sources, and political influence—can’t adequately study them on their own.

“There is only so much that a lab or a researcher can do, even with international collaborations among scientists,” Cigliano says. And while he acknowledges that professional researchers have long recognized the importance of engaging the public in conservation work, largely for generating community and political support, Cigliano says that more and more they’re realizing they could use help.

That’s where citizen scientists come in. Cigliano has been working with trained volunteers since the 1990s. He is now leading a long-term study of the intertidal zone of Acadia National Park, in Maine, watching for effects of warming and acidification. Because of the project’s lengthy outlook he says it would be more challenging without the help of volunteers—in this case high school students.

He and the teenagers count invertebrates and algae, and monitor pH, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and salinity within several dozen quadrants, each about the size of a sofa cushion. It could take 10 years, Cigliano says, to identify significant patterns and trends as warming and acidification force changes in the shallow-water ecosystem.

Three major citizen science outfits—Reef Life Survey, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), and Reef Check Foundation—have collected data leading to more than 150 scientific papers.

REEF’s director of science, Christy Pattengill-Semmens, says marine citizen science has matured in the eyes of academia. Their work, and that of other citizen science groups, is influencing lawmaking and legislation, too.

Read the full article Citizen Science Comes of Age at Hakai Magazine.

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