Citizen science: citizens conducting research

Given his young age, Willi the stork has already covered a considerable distance: it was only in the summer of 2020 that he was born in a market garden near Karlsruhe. Around two months later, he flew to a neighbouring town and then returned just briefly to his birthplace before finally setting off on a journey covering 2,727 kilometres: initially to Lake Constance, then via Switzerland to France, Spain and finally Morocco. This was all revealed by the Animal Tracker app, which people can use to report a sighting of the animal and send their ideas regarding analysis of the data. Members of the public thus become citizen scientists.

Citizen science involving the general population

The tracker forms part of the Icarus project and is the result of ambitious research cooperation involving among others the Max Planck Society, the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR – German Aerospace Center) and the Russian space agency Roskosmos. The researchers aim to use sensors and satellites to learn more about the animals on earth – how they migrate and behave. And citizen science, the involvement of informally certified researchers from the general population, plays an important role in this.

The researchers attach miniature transmitters to the animals and these continuously send measurement data – via the mobile phone network, the Internet of Things or via satellites. The results are published in the freely accessible Movebank database and in part also in the Animal Tracker app. ‘There are already around 900 animal species, from insects to whales, that are registered in Movebank,’ says project manager Professor Martin Wikelski, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour and at the University of Konstanz.

The app lists 140 animal species

The app can so far be used to observe around 140 of these species. Anyone using the app can see where the animals are and then take photos or videos or write down their observations in text form. For instance that a stork is currently eating migratory locusts, is interacting with other members of its species, is standing in a meadow with 20 cm high grass or is moving unusually, which could be an indication of injury or illness. This is often information that cannot be derived from sensor data.

The sensor uses GPS and also measures the ambient temperature, humidity and air pressure, the animals’ acceleration and their body position. So the animals do actually gather their own data, but the citizens’ reports provide a necessary complement. Most important of all are the suggestions for scientific analyses and the critical questions posed by citizens, especially children who frequently submit the best, most direct and most honest questions.

Using algorithms to understand behavioural patterns

The researchers can now run the data through different algorithms, firstly to identify immediate threats to the animals in real time due to their behavioural patterns, but also to better understand the animals' general needs. ‘We have by now stored many billions of behavioural patterns, so that researchers can in future use ever better algorithms to analyse them, also in real time,’ says Wikelski. ‘That will contribute to the protection of existing species.’

Animals are becoming extinct without us noticing

Some animal species are believed to be extinct because we failed to understand what they needed. One example is said to be passenger pigeons. They once darkened the skies over America. It was thought there were so many that extinction was not imminent, yet suddenly they were gone. In part presumably because their habitat had been destroyed and because the numbers shot down made group sizes too small to use swarm intelligence to find new food sources. More and more of animals’ natural habitats are being lost due to population growth and climate change.

Wikelski believes that nature conservation must become more dynamic. It used to be thought that animals would be permanently sustained once a protection zone was created, but the environment is constantly changing and a protection zone’s living conditions that were once ideal for the animals occasionally become inadequate. Sometimes it may be advisable to spontaneously protect normally accessible areas for a few days, for example when turtles come to lay their eggs on a beach. Citizens can also report situations such as these.

Insights into the research

Citizen science, however, is not just one-sided. Many people like to participate in a project, because together they form a network that becomes part of the research community. They obtain interesting insights into the research and can exchange ideas with other lay people and researchers. They also feel they are taken seriously, which is why they are motivated to be engaged for the animals.  

This community spirit is an important component in every citizen science project. Nathalia Carolina Mora Arciniegas from Columbia, who is currently conducting research at the University of Bremen, also sees it that way. She too is utilising citizen science for her animal observations: from the coasts of her home country, she and her colleagues are collecting observation reports on sharks and rays as part of the ‘Programa Nacional de Avistamiento de Tiburones y Rayas’ (PNAT). They involve regional diving clubs, fishermen and tourists in doing this. ‘It brings people together – beyond all the political tensions that exist in our country,’ she says. Workshops are used to teach citizens how they can identify the animals.

Preserving their habitat

The participants have already reported over 3600 sightings via email or WhatsApp. Arciniegas Mora and her colleagues are short of funding, so they are particularly reliant on people's voluntary collaboration. They also want their work to contribute to preservation of the animals’ habitat. They are currently establishing an IT infrastructure for the project. Arciniegas Mora is a former DAAD scholarship holder under the Development-Related Postgraduate Courses (EPOS) programme, whose general objectives Arciniegas Mora continues to pursue via her knowledge transfer and community building.

Just under 160,000 people worldwide are already using the Animal Tracker app to become involved in observing individual animals. The researchers’ experience with citizen science is very positive. ‘The only thing we pay special attention to is not to use the app to publish the position of some animals, such as rhinos, so they’re not disturbed,’ says Wikelski. He feels however that lay people are generally considerate towards the animals. It is hoped that the community of researchers and lay people will now establish animal observation as firmly as climate and weather observation. ‘This enables us to give animals a voice in the global parliament,’ says Wikelski.

Author: Boris Hänßler

photos: MaxCine_Fotograf

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To the Community

February 2021

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