Tuesday, 12 June 2012

WA's wildlife to benefit from citizen's 'smart phone surveys'

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iphone cameraPhotographs submitted by the “citizen scientists” will be the first of three levels of data quality recognised by the project. Image: Pison JaujipVOLUNTEERS with smart phones will soon be invited to participate in a massive and continuous survey of Western Australia’s wildlife.

Marine Biologist Associate Professor Lars Bejder says the automatic date, time and GPS stamping of smart phone photographs will make casual contributions by “citizen scientists” valuable to science.

Professor Bejder, who runs Murdoch University’s Cetacean Research Unit, noted the attempt last year to have the newly-described snubfin and humpbacked dolphins (Orcaella heinsohni and Sousa chinensis) listed as threatened.

He says the Federal Government rejected the application because there was not enough data to show the species’ distribution—a situation he expects the new project to help remedy.

“We can very quickly start getting a picture of the distribution in regards to these snubfin and humpbacked dolphins,” he says.

Dr Bejder said the survey will not be confined to the Kimberley, where the two species are known to occur.

“In WA you have vast coastline and expanses with many marine conservation issues,” he says.

“There’s no way that scientists or funding can keep up with … surveying all these areas over such large expanses with the amount of funding and time that’s available, given the speed of coastal developments that are currently happening.”

Volunteers will be encouraged to submit photographs taken along the whole of WA’s coastline.

Dr Bejder says there was already talk of work inland, as the database would be a valuable tool for tracking the advance of cane toads (Bufo marinus).

He says photographs submitted by the “citizen scientists” will be the first of three levels of data quality recognised by the project.

“Anybody can take a picture … at any time,” he says.

“That’s what we call the ‘unstructured data’.”

The next level, known as “structured data”, comes from contributing local groups who are well-trained.

The project has already spoken to the Swan River Trust’s river guardians, who may volunteer to log dolphins using a sampling protocol which would create a reliable record of species density and data rates.

“Then the next layer you can lay on top of it is very well-designed scientific surveys.”

The project is a partnership involving Murdoch University, Marine Ventures Foundation and Duke University (USA), and the American conservation project Blue Cloud Spatial.

According to its website, the latter provides “geospatial datasets, maps, watershed models and baseline imagery to aide in planning, implementing and monitoring ecosystem projects”.


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