Cool Papers 3: Citizen Scientists to the rescue!

By Danielle Ludeman

Let’s face it – the world we are leaving for our children is not going to be the same one we grew up in.  But although biodiversity is being lost in our ecosystems at an accelerating rate, around the world there are countless tales of people doing their part in trying to preserve, conserve, and manage our natural resources.  Before we can protect biodiversity in ecosystems we need to know what there is to protect, and an important challenge for ecologists is to determine geographical patterns in biodiversity, which requires extensive data collection. More and more we are relying on ‘citizen’ scientists to help in this key step, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers each year take part in a variety of surveys, bioblitzes, and monitoring programs.  But how reliable can the data be?

In a paper that came out last week in “Methods in Ecology and Evolution”, researchers Dr. Ben Holt and colleagues have shown that Citizen Science can be just as effective in recording marine biodiversity as traditional scientific surveys. The study compared two methods of acquiring biodiversity data: a belt transect typical in peer-reviewed scientific articles, and the ‘roving diver technique’ used by the REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) program.  Volunteers, no matter how enthusiastic they are, typically don’t have the training to use traditional scientific protocols, therefore most Citizen Science programs use alternate methods and techniques that may affect the outcome of the biodiversity survey.  This study therefore set out to try to determine how much the two methods differed when assessing the biodiversity in the Turks and Caicos Islands. They found that the two methods were consistent in their diversity estimates, with REEF’s rover method actually finding significantly more species than the belt method.  This rover method was not always the best method to use, as belt transects were more suitable for species richness estimates. However, the vast quantity of data that can be collected using REEF’s rover method and the consistency to diversity estimates of more traditional methods suggests that Citizen Science programs such as REEF can be invaluable for large-scale biodiversity surveys.

Divers performing a belt transect survey as part of a Citizen Science program called ReefCheck in Honduras.  Credit: D Ludeman

Divers performing a belt transect survey as part of a Citizen Science program called ReefCheck in Honduras. Credit: D Ludeman

Citizen Science is happening all around us. The REEF program has collected over six million sightings across 10 000 locations.  Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has finished its 113th year, with tens of thousands of participants collecting data from over 2000 circles.  Government programs such as British Columbia’s ‘Report-a-Weed’ helps in early detection and rapid response to invasive species.  And programs such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Bioblitz gets families from across Canada learning the plants and animals found in their own backyard.

So how about lets all get there and do our part!  Here is a (brief) list of just some of the Citizen Science programs that are happening out there.  Feel free to add more in the comments section, or send us a message at to get us to add yours!

REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation)
Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count
British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas
Whistler Biodiversity project
E-flora BC
Alberta Mycological Society
Alberta Plantwatch
Project Noah
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project