Spotting the Shy Guy – Why Collaboration With Local Indigenous People Can Be An Asset to Conservation Management

Original Paper: Ward‐Fear, G., Rangers, B., Pearson, D., Bruton, M. and R. Shine. 2019. Sharper eyes see shyer lizards: Collaboration with indigenous peoples can alter the outcomes of conservation research. Conservation Letters12(4), p.e12643.

Featured Image Source: Yellow-spotted monitor near Winton, Queensland. Credit: Graham Winterflood. Flickr


Think about your workplace and when you interviewed for your job. Were you asked how well you work on a team? This is one of the most common interview topics, and for a good reason. Working well with others is seen as an immensely positive trait, and the importance of collaboration in scientific research is highly valued because team members learn from each other and are better at solving problems. For decades, scientists have used the knowledge of local communities and indigenous people when conducting research. Local people can be great assets to scientific studies and fieldwork, as they may be able to find animals and plants that are not discoverable by “outsiders,” and they may be more committed to subsequent conservation efforts due to their attachment to the area. Despite the fact that they are often key assets, local people are often overlooked as official collaborators when scientists conduct research in the field.

A recent Australian study highlights the importance of including local and indigenous people in conservation research. While examining mitigation of lizard population declines, scientists stumbled upon a surprising finding about how researchers’ cultural differences can affect fieldwork and experimental outcomes.


Cane Toad Takeover

The invasion of poisonous cane toads in Australia has caused a major decline in certain large predators, including up to a 90% reduction in many populations of yellow-spotted monitors, a large lizard species in the area. Scientists wanted to slow down the rate of lizard fatalities from cane toad poison by teaching the lizards to avoid cane toads.

A group of researchers attached radio-transmitters to lizards in the wild and exposed these lizards to small cane toads, which are non-lethal (as they contain less poison). The researchers postulated that these trained lizards would then develop a conditioned taste aversion to the toads, meaning the lizards would hopefully avoid eating larger, lethal toads in the future after having adverse reactions to the smaller, non-lethal toads. Since the cane toad invasion largely consists of large lethal toads, this approach allows lizards to encounter cane toads and recognize the species as poisonous before facing the larger, more dangerous toads.

The scientists monitored survival of both trained and untrained (not previously exposed to toads) lizards over the next year and a half during the cane toad invasion to determine if the aversion experiment made a difference for lizard survival. They found that only 3% of untrained lizards lived through the 18-month study periods, whereas 56% of trained lizards lived. Thus, the aversion experiment was effective in slowing down the lizard death rate due to cane toad invasions.


The invasion of cane toads in Australia threatens native wildlife. Daintree, Australia. Credit: Jerry Oldenettel. Flickr
Bolder Isn’t Always Better for Lizards

Though these results are promising for lizard conservation management, the main focus of this paper was actually not on the direct results of the aversion study, but instead on the outcome of the initial fieldwork component of the study. Ten people in total were recruited to capture the yellow-spotted monitor lizards, and this group was split into five teams of two. Each team consisted of a western “scientist” (professional, nonindigenous ecologists and reptile specialists) and an indigenous “ranger” (Australian‐Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the region who had lived/hunted in similar environments but had not been trained in specific survey techniques until this study). These teams found lizards, recorded data, and fitted them with radio-transmitters. The teams recorded proximity of lizard to person when spotted, density of vegetation surrounding the lizard, light conditions over the lizard (light or shady), and movement of lizard (moving or not moving). The behavior of lizards was measured along a spectrum of “boldness,” or the amount of struggling during handling. Once the lizards were tagged and let go to roam in the area, they were monitored on how many days they survived and how they died (if they died during the course of the study).

Once all of the results were collected, the researchers found strong correlations between some of the lizard traits and the culture of the team members. Rangers spotted lizards that were more difficult to see (further away, in less light, more stationary, in denser vegetation) than those detected by scientists. In terms of behavior, the lizards that rangers caught were more docile, or “shyer,” on the boldness scale. Because these lizards were harder to spot, they were likely less vulnerable to natural predators. These lizards benefitted more from the aversion experiment than those caught by scientists, so they had higher rates of survival.

Local communities are vital resources for scientists. Credit: Alan Levine. Flickr
The Importance of Including Local Communities in Conservation Research

This study highlighted the importance of including not only indigenous and local people in conservation efforts, but people of varied backgrounds and experience. People with different knowledge may possess different skills for environmental, cultural, and genetic reasons. In this study, these biases led to varied outcomes despite the use of consistent methods.

The responses of the ranger-caught lizards to the aversion experiment were crucial to testing whether this aversion training could lead to a decline in the mortality rate of lizards due to cane toad poison. Without the observations of the indigenous people, the results of this study would have been quite different. On average, lizards survived longer when trained by rangers than scientists, and most of the trained lizards that died from cane toad ingestion were trained by scientists. This distinction may be due to the lizard’s boldness score, which also varied greatly between those lizards caught by scientists and those caught by rangers. If this study had only used scientists as lizard-catchers, those “shy” lizards would have been missed and the lizard population would not be as accurately represented.

The use of traditional ecological knowledge from local and indigenous collaborators can enhance cultural diversity and provide a more thorough sampling of the ecosystem being studied. The authors of this paper show the real value to incorporating the knowledge and skills of local people and collaborating with those from varying backgrounds. Together, different groups can hopefully create a more complete picture of our research, and maybe we will come to understand the world a little better because of it.


What Can You Do?

Citizen science can be a way of engaging the local community in scientific research and broadening the knowledge base of the study. If you are a scientist, encourage collaboration with local and indigenous peoples in your study area. They may think of something you would never have thought of! Make sure you give proper acknowledgement to local people if they assisted you in your studies.

If you are not a scientist, this does not mean you can’t participate in research! Often research groups look for volunteers to help collect samples or do general fieldwork. Here is a general resource for citizen science opportunities around the United States: The site iNaturalist also relies heavily on input from citizen scientists to collect important observations from around the world, and all it requires is a cell phone! Your skills could be highly useful to scientists, and they may even be essential to certain studies. So go out there and do some science!

Feel free to post comments with other citizen science opportunities below.


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Jessica Espinosa

Hi! My name is Jessica Espinosa and I am a PhD student at UConn in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department interested in the bird conservation. I received my masters degree in Conservation Biology from Columbia University where my thesis focused on the effects of coastal pollution on the behavior and morphology of hermit crabs in Fiji. I am also a Mount Holyoke College and City Year Alum. In my free time, I enjoy reading, writing, hiking, doing martial arts, and playing music.

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