Right beyond your doorstep are many mesmerising species of flora and fauna waiting to be found. While some scientists make a career out of studying these plants and animals, they may still sometimes need your help. Nature enthusiasts around the world can now spend their free time contributing to scientific research and data generation in ways that can be surprisingly impactful. No matter your age, job or educational background, technology has made it easier than ever before to learn about nature and play a part in its conservation through science. Getting started is easier than ever since the most important tool you’ll need is already being carried with you everywhere you go: your phone!
Advances in technology have spurred the creation of a range of mobile applications (apps) that allow for any member of the global community to record scientific data – essentially transforming a citizen into a scientist.
Citizen science, or community science, is the participation of members of the public in scientific research. Most often, volunteers collect data, which can range from water quality to air pollution to wildlife observations. With more hands on board, research projects can cover a wider geographical area and last longer than they would if researchers had carried out the projects with less public engagement.
Sometimes volunteers must be trained to collect the data; however, with citizen science apps, curiosity about the natural world is often enough to guide you. You can report anything that captures your interest. In this article, I’ll be highlighting two free-to-use citizen science apps that have gained momentum in Trinidad and Tobago that are worth considering for any aspiring citizen scientist out there!
In 2020, in Mexico, iNaturalist user ‘pioleon’, documented the first Perityle grandifolia rock daisy since 1904! This was an inspiring moment for citizen scientists like me all around the world.
Back in 2019, I photographed a tiny moth at Asa Wright Nature Centre with my phone. After requesting identification on iNaturalist, I got a message from lepidopterist, Dr. Matthew Cock, who is based in the United Kingdom.
The moth was Hylesia teratex. It was the first time he had seen this species recorded in Trinidad. The beauty of iNaturalist is that you can share photos with a wide community that includes scientists and nature enthusiasts.
Have you ever seen a plant that you cannot identify? Upload it to your account and the software matches it to photos of similar animals. Then, a scientist can narrow down its identity. You can also share your observations of a cool animal on the platform or add photos to a project.
Last November, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, T&T hosted a Backyard Biobltiz which challenged participants to observe as many plants and animals as possible, in their backyard, over the course of a 24 hour time period. The event was organised by the T&T Field Naturalists’ Club and the UWI Department of Life Sciences. It was a scavenger hunt that everyone could do together while they stood miles apart. Bioblitzers documented approximately 1,400 species, according to reports.
For bird aficionados, eBird beats all competitors. Dedicated solely to the recording of birds, every year, more than 100 million bird sightings are submitted to eBird. In T&T, over 31,000 checklists have been uploaded to date.
A birder enters where, how long, the time that they birded, and a list of the birds they saw and heard. They can even add audio or photos. The website hosts a real-time world map of the distribution of bird species, created from user records. eBird accommodates any level of experience, whether bird watching is a new friend or a long-time companion. You can see a list of the species most likely to be found in your area and on a specific date. You can also sign up for alerts about birds you have not yet seen. Regional experts review records of unusual birds or high counts.
There are still concerns that data collected by citizen scientists is less useful than data collected by trained scientists. In a recent webinar hosted by the Conservation Biology Institute in the USA, Conservation Biologist Peter Soroye, tackled this question. In his research, he compared two types of data submitted to a Canadian community science program called eButterfly: data from professional scientists and data from citizen scientists. Although experts found more new species, he concluded: “including all of the data…professional and community science data, increased our understanding of species richness”. He remarked that “community science datasets were telling us new things about where species were and what times they were there…” which, he said would help to “… inform our understanding of how species are responding to things like climate change and habitat loss”. Dr. Matthew Cock recalls that since he has been a member of iNaturalist, about 10 to 15 new species records of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) were made on the app for Trinidad and Tobago; moreover, he says there are many more that still need to be identified.
Citizen science is lifting the veil that has obscured many from easily learning about the natural world. It is showing us that through collaboration, we can solve world challenges across all fields of science.