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Biodiversity, Forestry and Wood: Reflecting on the Evidence

01 September 2020

By Dr Alan Jones and Tom Ovenden Co-secretaries of the British Ecological Society’s Forest Ecology Special Interest Group

Now, more than ever, it is critically important that appropriate species selection and evidence-based decisions inform woodland expansion and management.

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Increased visitation to nature spots could be used in citizen science projects

September 2020 by Flora Passfield

Citizen Science is a key part of data collection for large scale projects, especially in ecological projects which cover large spatio-temporal scales. Citizen Science relies on volunteers who are willing to collect data and record findings in their own time. This mode of data collection has boomed in the past two decades as published by the Ecological Society of America who reviewed the accuracy of citizen science as a data tool comparing a multitude of different projects (Aceves-Bueno et al., 2017)

Despite this increase in popularity in 2017 researchers from the University of Washington reported that many environmental scientists do not use citizen science as a primary data source (Burgess et al., 2017). In part this is due to the concern that the data collected isn’t all the same quality but also due to a lack of awareness of citizen science data platforms. However, there have been significant technological advances in ways to collect data for any manner of environmental projects, making citizen science an increasingly valuable data source. This rise in the use of citizen science has been heavily influence by Apps that allow data to be collated on one platform as well as allowing users to identify key aspects of interest like phenology and species identity more accurately.

Researchers from Aberystwyth University, Bangor University and the University of Plymouth have published a report on the use of citizen science in the future of marine conservation based on projects from around the world they found using Scistarter, a citizen science project platform (Earp and Liconti, 2020). This website allows anyone to find a science project in their local area to participate in whilst doing various activities such as walking or running, during a lunch break or uniquely online.

In the UK multiple Apps are helping to make citizen science projects more accessible for everyone. This means that anyone, from amateurs to enthusiasts to professionals can take part in mass data collection. Based on the nature of citizen science projects the data collection normally takes place outdoors. This is an advantage for many of the participants as it means enjoying nature as well as engaging with and learning more about their local wildlife.

 While the current situation imposed by COVID19 has meant many people find themselves staying at home, this could be a prime opportunity to contribute to ecological monitoring projects from the safety of your own home, garden and local area. Citizen Science projects that focus on the collection of ecological data require as many people as possible recording what they can find in the local area.

Free apps such as iNaturalist allow users to identify and record all manner of species, from plants to insects to mammals and birds. iNaturalist was used last year in The Big Forest Find, a Citizen Science project set up to celebrate the Forestry Commission’s centenary. The aim of this project was to add to the national database which is used by ecologists and forest management teams to help protect the diversity found in British forests. As summer is in full swing there should be abundant wildlife even in the smallest of gardens. The temperature, soil type and location of each garden or green space will affect the flora and fauna found there. The forests will also be teaming with wildlife at the moment, meaning that everyone anywhere in the world should be able to record some wildlife in their local area. The trees coming into leaf make them easier to identify and many flowers will be in bloom which is a helpful tool in plant identification. The more people taking part in surveys, the more data will be available for scientists and ecologists to learn behavioural patterns and shifts in the distributions of species populations.

For anyone planning or already running a biodiversity project, using citizen science could allow for a huge increase to any data pool as well as keeping funding for projects low. Prof. Filip Meysman, from the University of Antwerp, has used citizen science for his project CurieuzeNeuzen Vlaanderen, which in May 2018 had 20,000 volunteers who measured the air quality at their homes. The title of this project means curious noses in Dutch and aimed at making the public more aware of how important air quality is. The gas measured was nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is an important indicator of traffic pollution. The large scale of this experiment meant that the data collected could be used to make a computer modelling system, that predicts air pollution, to be more accurate and help provide more precise recommendations for public health and traffic policies in Flanders. A detailed map of air pollution was also created which means the local population can see where there is a high concentration of air pollution and avoid those roads if on a bike or on foot.

Using Citizen Science apps can be a great way of engaging younger audiences with their natural environment during the current lockdown as they not only help develop species identity skills but also provides information on specific species and their roles in the environment. The app Seek, which was created by iNaturalist is child friendly and fun to use. It uses image recognition technology to identify any species in the local vicinity. The App can use the camera on any device to focus on a plant, insect, fungi or bird and Seek will identify the species and can even save images or upload to iNaturalist for cross validation and use in research projects. Seek also offers regular challenges to find rarer species in an area.

Credit to Mitchell Orr

For those with more experience, there are websites that can be used to record any findings in nature. For example, for anyone already familiar with plant identification or butterfly species, websites like Nature’s Calendar, can be used to input findings. This site shows live maps with different species that are being spotted throughout the UK. This same project is focusing on how weather patterns and climate change affect species distributions and seasonal changes. At the moment they are still encouraging anyone who is interested to record any species that appear in their garden or that can be seen from a window, making this a particularly accessible project.

There are a multitude of published reports that have used the data collected by Nature’s Calendar in various research projects, such as A comparison of Nature’s Calendar with Gilbert White’s phenology. Gilbert White is a renowned natural historian, with work dating back to 1736. This report compares the reports of natural seasonal events recorded by Gilbert with those recorded on Nature’s Calendar from the same area. This has allowed phenologists (scientific study of periodic biological phenomena in relation to climatic conditions) to see the difference in natural patterns, such as bud bursts with a 300-year time difference.An article published in Nature in 2016 also used data from Natures Calendar to show how different phenological responses to climate change could cause a desynchronisation in ecosystems (Thackeray et al., 2016).

“If people that live in the country would take a little pains, daily observations might be made with respect to animals, and particularly regarding their actions and economy, which are the life and soul of natural history.”

                                                  GILBERT WHITE, 12 MAY 1770

Nature is immeasurably important for general wellbeing in times of stress and these visits to forests could be used to gather valuable data by everyone engaging as a Citizen Scientist. During the late summer period green spaces will be full of wildlife, making now an ideal time to download an App, start learning more about the nature that surrounds us and contribute to a growing pool of crucial scientific data. As natural processes continue this kind of data will provide a unique opportunity for the scientists to study how nature is responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

References:

Aceves-Bueno, E., Adeleye, A.S., Feraud, M., Huang, Y., Tao, M., Yang, Y. and Anderson, S.E., 2017. The accuracy of citizen science data: a quantitative review. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 98(4), pp.278-290.

Burgess, H.K., DeBey, L.B., Froehlich, H.E., Schmidt, N., Theobald, E.J., Ettinger, A.K., HilleRisLambers, J., Tewksbury, J. and Parrish, J.K., 2017. The science of citizen science: exploring barriers to use as a primary research tool. Biological Conserva

Thackeray, S.J., Henrys, P.A., Hemming, D., Bell, J.R., Botham, M.S., Burthe, S., Helaouet, P., Johns, D.G., Jones, I.D., Leech, D.I. and Mackay, E.B., 2016. Phenological sensitivity to climate across taxa and trophic levels. Nature, 535(7611), pp.241-245

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