A boost for citizen scientists!

3 06 2010

We here at SEANET have always known the value of citizen science. Our volunteers are patrolling coastlines from Florida to Maine, walking sites that professional scientists have never been and may never go. The data you collect is not haphazard or casual, but follows rigorous scientific standards and methods. Seanetters adapt their routines when asked, even when it’s difficult, if it means better data in the long run.

Seanetters go where science pros don't. (photo of the SEANET blogger's brother, James, and sister, Kata, helping out.)

And Seanetters are the ONLY people collecting large scale, long-term seabird mortality data on the entire East Coast! So no one here needs convincing, but the worth of citizen science is sometimes questioned.

A new paper out in the journal PLoS Biology hails citizen science efforts for the massive gap they fill. The paper points out examples like that of India, where extensive data on birds comes out of the Himalayas, where scientists throng. By contrast,  hardly anything is known about birds living on the central plains of India where avian biodiversity is low, and thus of less interest to scientists. By relying on the people who live in these “less interesting” areas, science gains a true picture of what species inhabit all sorts of places, not just biodiversity hotspots.

Author Dr. Elizabeth Boakes told the BBC News,

“In the future, say 50 or 100 years time, if scientists want to reconstruct a picture of our present-day biodiversity, they are not going to be able to because the data has not been recorded. We found that data from the past 30 years or so has been heavily biased towards threatened species and areas of high biodiversity, such as protected areas like national parks.”

Because Seanetters report all species of avian carcasses found (yes, even the gulls!), our data gives a relatively complete picture of east coast seabird mortality. Our goal, of course, is to improve that picture by increasing our coverage both geographically and temporally.  Dr. Boakes also points out in the article the need for centralized databases of citizen science data, so it isn’t dispersed in individual laptops, birding logs, or emails about cool observations among friends. So you should pat yourselves on the backs, Seanetters, for contributing to just such a database. Those of you submitting live bird data to eBird may be doubly proud!

We appreciate you, Seanetters, and it appears that the scientific community is beginning to as well.

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