The fast development and the rapid drop in costs of electronic equipment and information technology has transformed almost every aspect of human life in the past decades, including our way of interacting with the natural world and the measuring and recording of biological data. Although in existence for some time, only recently powerful smartphones have become almost ubiquitous in much of the world and with the help of software applications they can now undertake complex functions that only 5-10 years ago required several separate instruments including a handheld GPS, a digital camera, a specialised field guide, an auditory deposit with calls of birds or frogs and a computer. Not only is this advance generating a huge wealth of records but it also means that biological recording is made a lot more accessible as members of the public can get immediate access to identification guides, connect with other users, including experts, allowing them to recognise and record a large variety of species, sometimes without any prior biological or taxonomical training. Consequently, there has been a huge increase in developments in this field and many taxonomical groups in the western world, from birds to dragonflies and snakes to bumblebees, now benefit from simple smartphone applications for identification and recording of observations, including calls and tracks, facilitating the development of ecological datasets at a scale never seen before.
However, there are also other technological developments, such as the use of eDNA, LiDAR remote sensing technology and drones, which combined with ever-increasing computing power and availability of complex satellite imagery have the potential to completely transform biological recording including for amphibians and reptiles in temperate parts of the world such as the UK. Surveys at regional or landscape scales that would have required complex map checking, site visits and specialised ecological surveys are currently possible using free satellite image data available on a smartphone and provided that access is agreed, simple surveys to collect small quantities of water from ponds that can then be all shipped for eDNA analysis, basically looking for traces of DNA left in the water by specific species such as great crested newts. Most of the process can become automated and in theory it could even be conducted with the use of a drone to visit the ponds and collect the eDNA samples!
In this context a new review looking at the technological developments and the implications for biological recording is extremely suitable and August et al. 2015 do just that. They describe the recent advances in terms of data collection using smartphone apps, data verification, automation and management systems, storage aspects and information dissemination as well as the future of biological recording. An excellent opportunity to review in a structured format the implications of technological advancements. Froglife is currently working on the new version of its Dragon Finder app but also at various other ways to “democratise science”, improve recording and data collection for our species.
August, T., Harvey, M., Lightfoot, P., Kilbey, D., Papadopoulos, T. and Jepson, P. (2015), Emerging technologies for biological recording. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/bij.12534