Wayne Reynolds – Cape Solander’s Whale Warrior
Citizen science – Ordinary people are playing key roles in increasing our scientific understanding of the world,
“Citizen science is prompting scientists to become more imaginative.”Geoff Ross estimates that the Cape Solander whale project would have cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars had citizen scientists not been involved.
Every day, in all kinds of weather throughout Sydney’s winter months, Wayne Reynolds wakes up two hours before dawn. He then makes his way to Cape Solander, a rocky point overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Botany Bay, in Sydney’s south, where he spends an average of nine hours a day whale watching.
Last winter Reynolds, a retired mechanic and the founding member of the Cape Solander Whale Migration Study, helped count an unprecedented 2646 humpbacks during 68 consecutive days of watching the ocean from the Cape Solander lookout. The toughest times were the wild days “when the wind’s blowing in your face or you’ve got really bad rain or fog,” he says.
“We had a blue whale which stayed around for two hours and two southern right whales,” Reynolds says of recent sightings. “And Bladerunner [a celebrity humpback] who is easy to recognise because she was hit by a very big boat and has got propeller marks down her body… like vertical stripes.”
His cetacean hunt began in earnest in the mid-90s, long before “citizen science” – the term for scientist-led and volunteer-fuelled research collaborations – became popular.
A long-time whale lover with time on his hands, 49-year-old Reynolds deduced that an annual oceanic migration was probably taking place close to the ocean near his home in Sutherland, New South Wales. He headed to Botany Bay National Park, scanned the panoramic vista across to the Tasman Sea and began counting. Very quickly he realised he was right. That was in 1997.
Every year since, he and his volunteer colleagues have spent each May to July scanning the ocean from first light until dusk in an attempt to spot as many of the estimated 14,000-18,000 migrating humpbacks as they can.
“We can see from the data collected by the citizen scientists that humpback whales spotted off the coast of NSW have been increasing around eight to 14 per cent every year,” says whale expert Geoff Ross, coordinator of Marine Fauna for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Aerial surveys by the Australian Antarctic Division have confirmed these observations, which suggests the humpback population increase is between 10% and 14%. “That means our figures for citizen science are right on the money,” says Ross.
There is nothing new about ordinary folk pitching in to help on scientific projects. Amateur star-gazers and bird-watchers have been making observations for centuries. As far back as the mid-1770s, US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson became so fascinated by the weather that he started recording regular temperature observations – something now regarded as a stepping stone in the development of that country’s weather service.
One of the main ways science benefits is financial. Without volunteer labour, many endeavours can be difficult to fund. Geoff Ross estimates that the Cape Solander whale project would have cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars had citizen scientists not been involved.
What is changing is how scientists are harnessing the enthusiasm of amateurs, as well as the scope, scale and impact of these ventures.
Earlier last year news broke that a global web of amateur astronomers had used their own computers to discover signs of 42 new worlds by analysing NASA data provided by Yale University’s “Planet Hunters” initiative.
Elsewhere armies of citizen scientists are doing everything from photographing insects for the US’s national Bee Hunt to tracking radiation in Japan and even trying to work out if recorded laughs are real or posed as part of the British Royal Society’s online Laughter Project.
In Australia, scientists have sent school children in South Australia on bug-hunting missions, and involved photograph-taking tourists in helping monitor the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Conservation Council of Western Australia celebrates what it calls its “bush boffins” online, outlining how in collaboration with scientists they have helped discover everything from how toxic chemicals journey through the environment to techniques adopted by bats when it comes to dealing with climate change.
But citizen science is also prompting scientists to become more imaginative. At the University of Washington in the US, biochemist David Baker devised an online jigsaw puzzle game called Foldit, in which players decode and design three-dimensional proteins to show researchers new ways to understand protein structures.
It resulted in novel approaches to solving problems and a paper in Nature Biotechnology, which suggests humans’ puzzle-cracking abilities can beat computers’. “People put a huge amount of energy into playing games on computers … [Initiatives] like this can channel that energy into solving real-world projects,” Baker told NatureVideo. “Come home in the evening and you can either stay up all night playing Halo or be designing an HIV vaccine with people around the world. Which would you be happier saying you did when you went to work in the morning?”
Last year, the CSIRO in Australia committed to developing guidelines for both researchers and the public as the numbers of “civilians” involved in citizen science continues to explode.
Enthusiastic amateurs using Cancer Research UK’s interactive clicktocure.net have analysed over two million images of tiny tumour samples, speeding up essential data processing in the hunt to find cures for the disease.
In the US more than 200,000 people have already contributed to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science projects, collecting data on what the lab’s website describes as “a vast scale, once unimaginable”. From this comes science gold: data on where birds are, what they are doing, and how to help threatened species.
According to Professor Chris Daniels, director of the University of South Australia’s Barbara Hardy Institute, which specialises in sustainability and environmental research, the recent rise of citizen science is likely to continue. “[It is] probably the most important thing in the scientific process to have happened in 50 years,” he says. “We are going to see more of it. Scientists can’t necessarily gather huge amounts of information in a short period of time, especially across a very wide area – or in inaccessible places.”
These include people’s own backyards – a territory Daniels wanted to exploit during the 2012 “Great Koala Count” when, on November 28, over 800 South Australians hunted around their gardens to see if they could find koalas. They reported their findings to the Atlas of Living Australia, a website created for sharing information about all the known species in the country.
Daniels structured the experiment to elicit not only a population estimate but information about the animals: to find out how they were coping and what people thought of them – important data when it comes to working out how to deal with the marsupials.
CSIRO developed a special koala app so participants could photograph “their” koalas. “It gave us the GPS [location] but also enabled us to ground-proof the experiment,” says Daniels. “We would get the odd clown who would photograph their dog or cat just to muck us around, so you do need to be able to validate the data.”
The app also ruled out wishful thinking, something that cropped up in a previous experiment looking at the distribution of possums after Daniels’ team included three species that citizen scientists were briefed to be on the look out for: “The ringtail, the brushtail, and the pygmy possum – which is incredibly rare, we just included it for scientific completeness.” Unfortunately, participants kept seeing mice and then calling them pygmy possums.
“One person even reported a ringtail possum walking along a telephone line followed by six pygmy possums,” Daniels laughs. “We surmised that as there are probably not six pygmy possums in the entire Mount Lofty Ranges – the idea of all six of them walking immediately behind a ringtail was probably going to be the babies of the ringtail … but [without images] you can never exactly rule it out.”
There are times when citizen science stretches beyond pure data. Several years ago, Daniels and his colleagues gathered stories about magpies and possums to collect information on their urban behaviour and to share it, in the form of little books. One tale was a woman caring for her dying husband who had had a difficult night.
“It was 3 o’clock in the morning,” Daniels recalls. “She couldn’t sleep, he was suffering. She sat at the window and a group of magpies were carolling, and she wrote about how beautiful it was; how it gave her so much comfort. That wasn’t something I was expecting, that deep personal relationship with nature. Not everything has to be about numbers.”
Reynolds maintains his life has changed since he started “officially” whale watching. Every year when the count is done he follows the whales up the coast to Queensland, then south, coming home in November to do voluntary animal rehabilitation work until the count begins again in May.
And while Reynolds is not sure how long he’ll continue the whale count he knows the work is important enough to attract new volunteers. “It is special,’ he admits. “But the minute it’s not special I’ll stop.”
MORE CITIZEN SCIENCE
>> Solar Stormwatch, UK
To warn astronauts of solar radiation by spotting explosions on the Sun and tracking them through space.
>> The VerbCorner Project, US
A study on verb meanings aimed at broadening our understanding of vocabulary.
>> Safecast, Japan
Citizen scientists track radiation levels around the country since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Data is uploaded to online maps and Geiger counters can be borrowed or made with low-cost plans. An air-quality tracking programme is to follow.
>> The Great Sunflower Project, US
Grow sunflowers and observe bee activity to create an online map of bee populations.
>> EteRNA Puzzle Solving, International, based in the US
Scientists and gamers alike can play online games to discover the rules governing protein folding.
>> Aurorasaurus, North and South Poles
Anyone can report sightings of the auroras to create a highly accurate map to increase the chances of witnessing one of nature’s rarest beauties.
>>Bird observations, Singapore and Malaysia
The Bird Ecology Study group in Singapore has provided new insights into bird behaviour. In Malaysia, volunteers for the Nature Society undertake an annual survey of garden birds.
>> FrogWatch, Canada
Aims to study the decline in frog species and create solutions for our favourite amphibian friends.
>> Butterfly Census Week, South Africa
This bi-annual count in spring and autumn by volunteers helps identify trends in species.
>> Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust, New Zealand
Citizen scientists observe and record butterfly sightings, tag butterflies, and submit data.