Citizen-Scientists Share Sky-High Shark Scenes

Primary Source: Pirotta, V.; Hocking, D.P.; Iggleden, J.; Harcourt, R. Drone Observations of Marine Life and Human–Wildlife Interactions off Sydney, Australia. Drones 2022, 6, 75.

With large changes happening to ecosystems all around the globe, one of the largest challenges conservation experts face is information. Without an accurate assessment of the state endangered species and their environments are in, it is difficult to surmise the best course of action to save that species without disrupting the ecosystem further. Furthermore, because of limited time and resources, the most rigorous monitoring efforts mainly focus on publicly-recognizable endangered species, while the at-risk species and species less endearing to humans are left to fend off drastic ecosystem changes on their own. Filling in the gap for the limited resources of professionals, a variety of apps have given hobbyists a shot at recording data on wildlife species. These aptly-named ‘citizen scientists’ provide raw data to scientists organized with these apps, simply by partaking in their hobby of taking pictures or videos of wildlife. In turn, conservation experts can analyze this data and determine the best course of action. On paper, it’s a win-win scenario. However, as citizen science apps have begun to grow in popularity, the question of how effective citizen science data is has not gone unnoticed. A recent article by various Australian researchers tackles this question, analyzing the benefits and pitfalls of citizen science data.

How Does A Drone Do?

Researchers analyzed hours of drone footage made by a single user of the citizen science platform DroneSharkApp, which specifies in recording marine life. While the main appeal of this particular citizen science app is sharks, other marine life such as seals, dolphins, rays, whales, large fish, and marine reptiles are also frequently recorded. For the sake of consistency, the researchers analyzed video recordings made by a single user taken from the same location. After analyzing the collected recordings, the researchers noted the more pressing flaws with citizen science data. 

Remotely controlled drones such as this can safely observe animals from a distance, with minimal disruption of the ecosystem. Credit: “Drone flying near a seagull perched on broken tree trunk” by Mircea Iancu, licensed under CC0 1.0

First and foremost is the issue that citizen science data such as that provided through DroneSharkApp is ‘presence only’ data. This means data does not account for days when no animals are present, or when conditions make recording impractical. As the data is recorded by hobbyists, it is biased towards activity more than lack thereof, whereas scientific studies looking at changes over time would need to be just as aware of the absence of their target species as the presence of it. Additionally, while many species were observed, the footage ultimately focussed on various shark species most of the time, pointing to human biases towards species more widely regarded as interesting by the general public. Finally, despite the capabilities of drones exceeding simple video recording, such as GPS, time, temperature, windspeed, etc. this data was either not recorded by the app or not made available to scientists who wished to use the associated video observation for data. Seeing as many of these data points are continually being recorded by the machine anyway, the decision to not record or make available this valuable data in addition to video makes this particular app less useful to the scientific community.

Even without formal training, nature enthusiasts and hobbyists can contribute to environmental research through various citizen-science pathways, such as volunteering as shown here. Credit: “Citizen Science Volunteers” by Mount Rainier NPS, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Keeping Up Collaboration

Despite the flaws noted by researchers, there were unique benefits provided by the DroneSharkApp data. While professional monitoring is made to be left in the wilderness and capture video and data recorded upon retrieval, this durability frequently comes at the cost of video quality. As drone recording does not come with this constraint, more focus is put into high quality images which can be magnified or cropped by the scientist to emphasize certain points. It is due to strengths like these that, while ill-suited for studying change over time, citizen science data provides unique opportunities for more qualitative studies. As an example, the researchers involved in this article confirmed through their observations the presence of whale calves alongside northern migrating female humpback and minke whales, giving credence to recent speculation of a yet-unrecorded breeding ground further south in the whales’ migration route. While citizen science and its associated technologies are fairly recent additions to the scientific community, studies such as this highlight how invaluable their collaboration can be towards monitoring our environment and making new discoveries. As citizen scientists and researchers work together more, surely many current issues with citizen science apps can be mitigated through education and training of citizen scientists.

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Cypress Novick

Cypress Novick

I am a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where I studied for my Bachelor's in Biology. My main research interests are wetlands ecology, mycology, estuary ecosystem interactions, and plant-based trophic interactions. I have always been passionate about making science more available and understandable, and am always trying to improve my writing so I may help myself and others be better understood.

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