How to Help Scientists and Where Count Birds Is Most Important

To become a real researcher, no matter whether it is a mathematician, biologist or astronomer, you need to study a lot and for a long time, and then work no less hard. But what if you want to do something useful for science, but there are no opportunities to devote your whole life to this? With the development of the Internet, the movement of scientific volunteering has become widespread: scientists invite those who wish to help in solving problems that do not require academic qualifications, such as, for example, collecting or processing data. Today scientific volunteering unites millions of people around the world.

For example, volunteers are actively helping to collect bird data. The online database eBird, launched in 2002, currently has over 800 million records made by birdwatching birdwatchers.

But there is also a problem – the data is collected unevenly by amateurs. More attention is paid to “interesting” views and “interesting” or more accessible locations. As a result, inconspicuous and often on the verge of extinction, species are out of sight of civilian science. This gives rise to incidents like “Reopening” Vietnamese deer (Tragulus versicolor) in 2019, which was considered extinct because no one saw him for 30 years – he lives in dense, hard-to-reach forests in the mountains of Vietnam.

A group of researchers from the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland and the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague recently published in the journal Biological Conservation an article in which she proposed an algorithm for prioritizing the efforts of volunteers so that they bring maximum scientific benefit in the shortest time. According to the authors of the work, such a quantitative assessment mechanism will help focus the efforts of scientific volunteers on those sites where new data on biodiversity should be collected in the first place.

The logic of the proposed scheme is as follows. Suppose there are two sites of the same size (A and B), where volunteers watched birds. For each of the sites, it is possible to assess the “completeness of the study” – the likelihood that it was possible to record all the bird species found in a given area. If the completeness of the study is 100%, then we are sure that not a single species of bird has been missed by vigilant birdwatchers. If the completeness is, for example, 10%, then it can be argued that we do not really know anything about biodiversity in this area.

Now let’s imagine that 5000 observations were made on site A and the completeness of the study was estimated at 60%, and on site B only 2000 observations were made, and the completeness was only 20%. An intuitive solution would be to direct the attention of civilian scientists to the less explored second area. But everything will change if it turns out that plot A with a high degree of probability will soon be given up for construction, and with plot B, most likely, nothing will happen in the foreseeable future. Then it would be more logical to direct efforts to study site A in order to have time to get more information about it and to try to take measures in time to prevent the extinction of rare species.
The authors of the work have illustrated their conceptual scheme using the example of the same eBird database. The information collected in it helps biologists in studying the migration routes of birds, assessing their numbers, etc. The researchers compared the completeness of the survey of different land areas with the published risks of habitat transformation within those areas. After that, the priority of the survey for each site was assessed on a scale from 0 (lowest) to 1 (highest priority). The resulting distribution of priorities can be viewed at online map.

It turned out that for 53% of the land area on the eBird platform there is no data at all, and, at the same time, for 16% of the land there is a high risk of being transformed due to human economic activity. First of all, these are the countries of Africa and some parts of Central and Southeast Asia, Mongolia, the Middle East and Brazil. Consequently, it is there that it is important to collect data on biodiversity and most actively develop the infrastructure of citizen science.

Another question is how to develop it? Regions at risk usually cannot boast of huge budgets for science and environmental preservation, and generally a high standard of living. Therefore, it is obvious that the solution to the problem here lies beyond the scope of science alone. As for Russia, here we are “sitting on two chairs” – with a rich scientific tradition, respect for nature conservation, unfortunately, often leaves much to be desired.

Source: Автономная некоммерческая организация "Редакция журнала «Наука и жизнь»" by

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