how more and more students are catching the citizen science virus

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This article is one of a series on how readers can learn the skills to participate in activities academics enjoy doing on the job.


Taxonomy was once the domain of scientists in white coats with years of university training. While this expertise is still important, everyday Australians are increasingly helping identify species through citizen science applications. The rapid advances in cameras for smartphones and tablets are helping to popularize this business.

Biodiversity researchers are call citizen scientists to provide data to fill information gaps, identify species declines and inform management decisions. And young researchers – some as young as preschoolers – are rallying to help.

Stories like the experience of 14-year-old Luke Downey of Canberra inspire others to save and upload images to biodiversity databases. Earlier this year, Luke found a rare beetle, Castiarina testacea, last seen in ACT in 1955. His sighting was recorded in the Canberra Nature Map, an online repository of rare plants and animals.

I put a macro lens on my smartphone and I was addicted

My own inspiration for becoming a Citizen Scientist was a cheap macro lens now permanently attached to my smartphone. This small, portable lens shoots small subjects at very close range. (Some newer smartphones have built-in lenses that can do this.)

I caught the “bug” of taking detailed close-up images such as the one below of native stingless bees, Tetragonula carbonaria, commune with each other and admire – or keep – their beeswax. Sharing the images I took has converted other people to this type of citizen science.

By attaching a macro lens to your smartphone (some have built-in close-up cameras), you can take photos like this of the native stingless bee, Tetragonula carbonaria.
Photo: Judy Friedlander, Author provided

Anyone can now take close-ups of insects, plants and other species to contribute to citizen science databases. The clarity of these images means that experts can often determine the species, allowing for a better understanding of distribution and numbers to aid conservation in the field.

Activities like these are included in the B&B Highway program, executed by PlantingSeeds projects. The program encourages students from schools in New South Wales and Victoria to participate in a citizen science project. He is affiliated internationally naturalist network and database on biodiversity and CSIRO Atlas of Living Australia.

Students use smartphones and tablets in playgrounds to capture extraordinary images of insects less than 1cm in length, or tiny details of parts of flowers. There is an online dashboard where students can view and share observations and knowledge. These images then contribute to our knowledge of the distributions and densities of species.



Read more: Bed and breakfast for birds and bees: transform your garden or balcony into a refuge for wildlife


Focus on pollinators

The B&B Highway program has developed a biodiversity-based program with the NSW Department of Education. The project includes plantations and habitats built in schools to form regeneration corridors. It has a target of more than 60 hubs by mid-2022 to help counter the alarming decline in pollinators in Australia and around the world.

The B&B Highway program provides training for teachers and students. While students are often more comfortable with smart devices and camera functions than their teachers, separate instructions are given to school administrators to set up an iNaturalist account and upload observations. Having a school account ensures that student identities are protected and that all observations are listed as those of the school.

Children under 13 cannot create accounts or engage directly with many citizen science communities, including iNaturalist. This means that an adult must download observations.

An observation is considered of research quality if at least two users of the site agree on the identification at the taxonomic level of the species. Observations on iNaturalist are shared with the Atlas of Living Australia.



Read more: Want to introduce children to nature? Insects can help


close up of yellow daisy
The photos you take can help fill in knowledge gaps about the distribution and abundance of pollinators and the flowers they visit.
Photo: Judy Friedlander, Author provided

Regular taxonomists report a concern the lack of data on the distributions and densities of pollinating insects. This month addition of 124 Australian species to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species means that urgent strategies – including citizen science – are needed to help regeneration.

Urban observations are important in terms of 30% of Australia’s endangered species are found in cities. Yet only about 5% of citizen science projects in Australia are based in urban areas. With three quarters of Australia’s 23.4 million people now living in a capital, the potential of citizen science is enormous.



Read more: Nature lurks in every nook and cranny of Australian cities – just look a little closer and you’ll find it


Some expert advice

The following tips from the INaturalist Teacher’s Guide will help you get started.

Take identifiable photos. Try to fill the frame with your subject. It may be helpful to use your hand to hold a still flower or plant, but make sure the plant is not dangerous.

The red and green parrot is resting on a branch
Sightings of wild species, like this royal parrot, Alisterus scapularis, have a more scientific value.
Author provided

Take several photos. Many organisms, especially plants and insects, cannot be identified to the species level from a single photo. Take multiple photos from different angles. For plants, photos of flowers, fruits, and leaves are all useful for identification.

Focus on wild organisms. In general, the iNat community is more interested in wild organisms. Members react more to pictures of weeds and insects than to cultivated roses and caged hamsters.

Pay attention to metadata. This is the information associated with a photo that captures when and where (if location services are enabled) a photo was taken. The screenshots of the photos will lose this data, which can lead to incorrect data entry. Watch out for places and dates that don’t make sense. If the time and date settings on your device are wrong, the data will be wrong.

Don’t feel pressured to make research-quality observations. Many organisms cannot be identified to the species level using only photographic evidence, so their observations may never reach a research level.

Be aware of copyright. Images should not be copied from books or the internet to illustrate what you have observed. Only post your own photos.

Discover Search. To look for is an educational tool built on iNaturalist. It doesn’t actually post sightings on iNaturalist, but provides tools like automated species identification (where possible) and nature logging.


You can read more articles in this series here.

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