Citizen scientists have been an essential part of our understanding of the natural world for hundreds of years but their contribution and importance have only been formalised and widely recognised in the last decades. Such unpaid members of the public, ranging from experts to beginners, can collect a great diversity of biological data, often in the form of species records in a variety of habitats. In addition, citizen science can be employed to answer complex biological questions and, provided that adequate measures are incorporated in the design, it can do so in a robust and cheap way while covering a very large spatial scale. The potential to cover huge areas of land, even at continental scale, over a long period of time and including private land which is otherwise difficult to access, is one of the main advantages of incorporating citizen science projects in biological monitoring. However, creating a functional framework for citizen science is not straightforward and recruiting and maintaining high volunteer engagement can be equally complicated. In this context, a new review published this month is aiming to evaluate the potential for citizen science to be incorporated for wildlife disease surveillance, including reviewing the benefits for the scientists, for participating members of the public and for wildlife species alike, as well as the logistical and financial implications and the limitations.
Diseases have always represented one of the major factors driving the dynamics of animal and plant populations, but in recent years this has become especially relevant given that the fast pace of globalisation is bringing together organisms that have been separated by millions of years and creating the conditions for catastrophic disease outbreaks, such as the much-discussed chytrid fungus devastating amphibian populations on four continents. Similarly, in the 1990s Froglife and the Institute of Zoology in London have used citizen science in the form of reports from members of the public, to understand, identify and discuss the presence of a new amphibian disease, called ranavirosis, that was only emerging then and was impacting strongly common frog populations in large parts of England. The virus had most likely been brought to the UK and mainland Europe by the pet trade with fish or the trade with aquatic ornamental plants. Although much remains unclear, primarily how to successfully treat the disease, we now know that moving frogspawn and tadpoles between ponds could accelerate the spread of the disease and that the presence of fish species, such as goldfish, in garden ponds, is likely to exacerbate the severity of the disease in amphibians (North et all, 2015). Given that the data was collected in private garden ponds it is very likely that without the power of citizen science it would have remained hidden for much longer. All of this was changed and made possible using the data collected by members of the public and reported to Froglife.
The Frog Mortality project has now been continued with the Garden Wildlife Health project and is aiming to continue to use both opportunistic and standardised garden surveys to monitor the health of wildlife species, not just amphibians but also reptiles, mammals such as hedgehogs and birds. If you haven’t yet participated in this project, this is your chance to record incidents in your local wildlife heaven, the urban garden, and in this way become a citizen scientist and contribute to a much greater understanding of biological questions and help the conservation of these wildlife species.
References and further reading:
North AC, Hodgson DJ, Price SJ, Griffiths AGF (2015) Anthropogenic and Ecological Drivers of Amphibian Disease (Ranavirosis). PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127037. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127037
Lawson B, Petrovan SO, Cunningham AA (2015) Citizen Science and Wildlife Disease Surveillance. Ecohealth, DOI: 10.1007/s10393-015-1054-z