Lottie Hedley

Citizen science

You don’t need a PhD to find a new species, unearth a rare fungus or name an asteroid. New Zealanders with no specialist training are contributing to scientific research by monitoring streams, spotting rare plants, counting the birds visiting their back gardens, and putting GPS trackers on their cats.

Written by       Photographed by Lottie Hedley

Environmental-science students from Earlham College in the United States, on a semester abroad in New Zealand, sample the Bushy Park wetland with the help of other BioBlitz volunteers. About 100 people participated in the BioBlitz weekend, including 13 experts from universities and institutions around the country.

If you have any wasps or bees, give them to John. James will be aquatic insects and beetles. Mary will be mosquitoes, cockroaches and wētā. Karin will be doing snails, and Robert, who is in the bush at the moment, will most likely be doing a guided tour at night and light-trapping any moths and butterflies. The remainder you can pass on to me—flies and whatever is left.” Rudi Schnitzler pauses to consider if he’s forgotten something. “Spiders, oh yes, spiders! Pass them on to me.”

In front of the stables at Bushy Park, between the homestead, the forest and the wetland, there’s a whiteboard with the day’s activities lined up, a different one on each hour. Setting pit traps and malaise traps in the forest. Collecting leaf litter to comb through for land snails. Sampling aquatic invertebrates in the wetland. Scones for afternoon tea, a barbecue later on, moth collecting after that.

“If there’s something you’re really interested to do, like looking for fungi or bark bugs, write it down on the whiteboard,” instructs BioBlitz convener Mike Dickison (far right) about the weekend’s programme of activities.

I’m at a BioBlitz, a 24-hour intensive field survey where people attempt to count the number of species in a particular place. It’s a giant scavenger hunt, a summer camp for all ages, and anyone can attend for free—the only requirement is curiosity. Over the next day and night, teams of scientists and volunteers will collect and identify as many species as possible.

Bushy Park is a 100-hectare estate just outside Whanganui, encompassing a rare remnant of untouched lowland forest, and the largest northern rātā tree in the country. No one’s ever attempted to make a record of what lives here—much is known about the endangered stitchbirds/hihi within the sanctuary, down to the number of chicks they have every year, but very little about its invertebrate communities. The park reportedly has peripatus, a rare velvet worm that shoots goo out of its head, but no sighting has been recorded officially, and several attendees are hoping to spot one.

While waiting for the noon start, I meet some of my fellow blitzers. David Roscoe is a passionate photographer of land snails, capturing their tiny shells—one to six millimetres in size—and enlarging them to show off their whorls and striations. Duncan Hill, from Foxton, and his son Toby Kleinsman-Hill are here to learn something new. There’s a whole class of American exchange students. Marion Leighton is a specialist physician—she gets the cases at Wellington Hospital that nobody else can figure out—and she’s brought her mother, Shirley, who is visiting from Britain. Neither has been on a BioBlitz before, but Shirley is an enthusiastic amateur botanist who grows alpine plants in a greenhouse in Cumbria. Or, rather, she did, until the greenhouse blew over. She’s not sure whether to have it replaced. “If I don’t, I might never grow alpine plants again,” she says.

Scientists get to work in the Bushy Park stables identifying the species collected by BioBlitz volunteers, who stop by to watch the experts at work.

For my first excursion, I head into the bush with Auckland Museum entomologist John Early to lay pit traps. It’s a noisy place, with the saddleback sawing away, and beams of hot light reaching the forest floor.

“These are very high-tech,” he says, and pulls out a pile of bright-yellow plastic plates. “Yellow is strong insect magic. A lot of insects are attracted to yellow.”

Frustratingly, the supermarket has stopped stocking yellow plates, so he’ll have to order his next batch from overseas. We fill them with water and a couple of drops of strong, fragrance-free detergent, which prevents insects from escaping once they crawl in or land on the surface. He’ll leave out the traps until tomorrow morning, but expects he’ll catch most of his specimens later today.

“When the weather’s good like this, lots of stuff should be out and about,” he says. “For some reason we always get the biggest numbers in the afternoon.”

“They sleep in?” I ask, and Early cackles.

“When I started studying entomology, I said to my supervisor, ‘Why should I take your entomology paper?’, and one of the reasons he gave me was, ‘Oh, when you do fieldwork, you don’t have to be out until 10 in the morning, when the dew is off the grass’.”

[Chapter Break]

The BioBlitz captures one of the primary characteristics of citizen science—amateurs and specialists working in tandem. Around New Zealand, hundreds of citizen-science projects are under way, from the international in scope to the hyper-local—one project involved a few patches of watercress in Taranaki, while another has affected electric vehicles around the world. People are invited to count wading birds, moreporks, cockles, bats, kererū, Hector’s dolphins, monarch butterflies and freshwater mussels for various government and non-profit groups. You can measure winter snowfall at your home for NIWA, upload photographs of king tides in Auckland, survey duck ponds for Fish & Game, record the coloured bands on a kea’s leg for the Kea Database, or volunteer to GPS-track your cat.

One of the most powerful aspects of citizen science isn’t reflected in the 24-hour BioBlitz, though—extending the reach of the pros through space and time. Scientists aren’t everywhere, and funding doesn’t last decades, but volunteers are neither motivated nor restricted by money. And so the Ornithological Society of New Zealand has been monitoring shorebirds for more than 50 years. The data collated in the organisation’s 2007 Bird Atlas of New Zealand, compiled from 31,817 field forms, is estimated to be worth at least $10 million, according to citizen-science researcher Monica Peters, who created an inventory of projects for Manaaki Whenua–Landcare Research.

Of course, people already like birds, but it’s harder to get them to look out for less desirable things such as algal blooms or banana passionfruit or brown marmorated stink bugs—right?

Species photographed at the Bushy Park BioBlitz are later logged as observations on iNaturalist NZ, an online database which allows anyone to upload photographs of plants and animals. More than 8000 New Zealanders use the site—which has around 2500 experts identifying species from the photos uploaded—creating crucial environmental baseline information.

Not if they affect a place that people really care about. Projects abound that are tracking the health of streams, rivers, lagoons and lakes. At a training session for NIWA’s new stream health monitoring and assessment kit, SHMAK (rhymes with ‘smack’), I meet a farmer, a primary-school teacher, and a community coordinator, all involved in figuring out what’s affecting their local waterway. In 2015, Wanaka locals launched Touchstone, a project to figure out what’s causing algal blooms and poor water quality in Lake Wanaka. A similar monitoring project is underway at Tomahawk Lagoon on the Otago Peninsula—an important wetland, its health varies wildly from month to month, and people are attempting to pinpoint why. The Taranaki watercress project investigated why E. coli levels were so high in places where a local hapū gathers kowhitiwhiti.

There are history projects—people are helping to analyse World War I personnel files alongside Auckland War Memorial Museum—and technology projects. Flip the Fleet has been tracking the battery performance of electric vehicles, uncovering a fault within the Nissan Leaf in the process—a patch for it is now being tested.

There are misconceptions, too. Scientists are often concerned that untrained volunteers will collect bad data, says citizen-science researcher Andrea Wiggins, either through carelessness or a deliberate intent to affect the results. Wiggins studies projects around the world from her position at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

“People who self-select to participate in citizen science as volunteers are passionate about something,” she says. “The people who couldn’t care less and who might be sloppy contributors—they’re not going to get involved. It’s a non-issue.

“We have a problem of people not contributing data they’ve recorded because they’re worried it’s not good enough. We have to work with people to encourage them to share their data, to reassure them that the work we’ve done with the project design means they cannot ruin the science by themselves. Little kids can do effective work, if the work is designed the right way.

“It is harder to fake data convincingly than it is to collect it correctly in the first place.”

Sometimes, projects are mislabelled as citizen science. It isn’t volunteering, or getting people outside to look at nature. True citizen-science projects involve a research question, a carefully designed investigation, and a standardised format for collecting and analysing data. Most of all, there’s an exchange between professionals and enthusiasts, experts
and amateurs.

[Chapter Break]

“Do you know what this is? No? This is the swim bladder out of a porcupine fish.”

Pat Swanson turns over the translucent oval in his hands—it looks like a fortune cookie made of cloudy white plastic.

“You guys are very blind, you’re missing all this,” calls a voice, and the students who have gathered around Swanson scatter again. There’s a chocolate bar for anyone who finds a glow stick among the rubbish we’re collecting from this corner of the Tapuae Marine Reserve.

Two years ago, the students in Swanson’s marine studies class started doing what volunteers all around the country do: picking up rubbish from their local beach. Except, they went a step further—they wanted to know how it had arrived there in the first place.

“It’s a pretty simple question,” says Swanson, “but not always that easy to answer.”

The first step was to figure out what they were finding, so Swanson and Taranaki Regional Council marine ecologist Emily Roberts had the students design a litter survey, which required them to identify and categorise each piece of rubbish they’d picked up.

The students kept finding funny-looking plastic-fringed cubes on the beach—they looked a bit like old shuttlecocks. There were loads of them—in some spots on the beach, says Roberts, you could pick up a hundred within half an hour. What were they?

“There’s been lots of organised beach cleans previously but we’d not really identified what was there,” says environmental educator Emily Roberts (pictured in blue shirt).

A student identified them: they were shotgun wads out of gun cartridges. The local Fish & Game officer, Allen Stancliff, set about figuring out where the wads had come from. The largest over-water clay pigeon shoot, he discovered, took place over the Manganui River, a tributary of the Waitara, which flowed to the Taranaki coastline.

Meanwhile, Roberts and the students identified places with the highest concentrations of wads. Modelling by oceanographer Mariana Horigome of MetOcean Solutions showed they were probably travelling widely—as far north as Raglan, and as far south as Opunake.

Stancliff took the students’ findings to the Inglewood Rod and Gun Club, which organises the clay pigeon shoot. Its chairperson, Pogal Moratti, immediately arranged for a switch to biodegradable wads—changing from plastic to fibre wads, which dissolve. (In addition, Fish & Game now recommends all clay pigeon shoots use biodegradable wads.)

When New Zealand Geographic visits the beach with Roberts, Swanson and this year’s Highlands Intermediate marine studies class, it only takes a couple of minutes for Roberts to pick up a shotgun wad. But we find only two. Now that the number of wads has declined, the project is into a new phase, and glow sticks are the focus. Fishing boats hang them over the side by night as lures, and they tend to wash up on the beach.

“These kids actually really care about this sort of stuff, and actually like seeing the science behind what they’re doing,” says Swanson. “They don’t just want to do a beach clean-up—there’s got to be more of a reason behind it. And it’s involving their families, which is pretty important as well.”

It’s all led by students—and has been, right from the outset. This is partly because Taranaki is one of three regions in New Zealand that has been receiving government funding for participatory science projects—a type of citizen science that’s driven by community concerns, then guided by experts, and which involves local schools. The program’s national coordinator, Victoria Metcalf, is expecting the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) to soon be extended beyond Taranaki, Otago and South Auckland.

In Taranaki, Roberts coordinates other PSP-funded projects to gather information about local species—New Zealand dotterels, little blue penguins, reef herons and orcas. Having records of sightings, individuals and nests, says Roberts, is crucial when it comes to protecting threatened species.

For instance, the recent application to mine ironsand off Taranaki noted that there had been only six orca sightings along that coastline in the previous 25 years.

The students are now focused on reducing the number of glow sticks and the amount of agricultural waste washing up on Taranaki beaches.

“I knew as a surfer, seeing them quite often, that that wasn’t the case,” says Roberts. “But that’s the information that’s available for those consultants writing the assessment of environment effects. If the information is poor, it leaves a real danger that threatened species don’t get adequately protected—so that local information is super powerful.”

Roberts and others set out to create a record of local species—where they nest, how they behave, where they travel—that any member of the public can contribute to. Because the project was able to show that little blue penguins used a particular area for nesting, it meant that provisions for penguins were incorporated into the design of a new sea wall.

But the challenge for monitoring projects  such as these lies in obtaining data away from the main centres, in places where few people live.

[Chapter Break]

“Seven cars in a queue is a horrendous busy day for us,” says Kamera Raharaha from her deck, gazing out at the bush that makes up her 10-acre block. She lives on the long spit of the Far North. The east coast is a five-minute walk away, the west coast a 10-minute drive.

A few years ago, she didn’t know much about what grew around her.

“One of my mates who was over here, who knew plants, pointed at something and said, ‘Oh, that’s a native orchid’, and I said, ‘Since when do we have orchids?’”

Wanting to find out more, Raharaha went online, and discovered a website, iNaturalist NZ, where people recorded observations of plants and animals by posting photos of things they found. Everyone on the site seemed to have a PhD in something, but she was intrigued, and eventually she posted a photo of a bird. Immediately, another person on the site identified the species in her picture, a northern New Zealand dotterel. It was a virtual pat on the back, a sign she’d contributed correctly.

She started posting plant photos—“because I literally just had to step outside and point the camera somewhere”—and those were identified, too. Sometimes, people wrote to say that they couldn’t figure out the species, only the genus, because they needed a photograph of another part of the plant—flowers, or fruit. Raharaha went straight back out and took more photos. She was learning about everything around her, and complete strangers were giving her encouragement and advice.

After sweeping nets through the field at sunset, Marion Leighton (left) and Thomas (centre) check what they’ve captured so far. Collecting at the BioBlitz takes place at different times of day, from ‘bushbashing’ in the morning (shaking mānuka trees to see what falls out of them) to luring moths after dark with a super-bright lightbulb.

She didn’t know that she was becoming an object of fascination among the other users of the site. Few people were posting observations from her end of the country—and Raharaha was observing stuff that was just plain weird. Lectospermum growing higher than it was supposed to. Flowers the wrong colour. Who was she?

One day, Auckland botanist Peter de Lange—the person who had identified Raharaha’s first picture of the dotterel—invited her on an expedition to observe Bartlett’s rātā, one of New Zealand’s rarest trees.

“Having people with that kind of knowledge right beside you is like having your own personal encyclopaedia,” she says.

These days, she regularly goes on trips with other members of iNaturalist NZ. There’s a mollusc expert and an orchid expert within a couple of hours’ drive.

As the year turned—towards 2016, a leap year—she decided she’d record 366 observations, ones that weren’t plants. “I started lurking in the bush at night—I learned what colour the eyes are of different insects,” she says. “And that’s one of the reasons I started on the beach.”

Her underwater observations—she calls them “obs”—intrigued marine experts to join the site to keep an eye on what she was finding. Now, scientists visit her, and she teaches them how to spot wheke—octopuses—concealed in rock pools. Now, she’s the walking encyclopaedia. Scientists ask her to collect seaweeds for DNA analysis, or go diving in dune lakes.

It’s a hard life, she jokes. Not everyone could do it. “I sit on my deck and I think, ‘What should I do today?’”

BioBlitz volunteers comb through leaf litter, looking for tiny snails and other invertebrates. “Wherever you go in New Zealand, every few kilometres you will find something different as far as snails are concerned,” says Karin Mahlfeld, a Department of Conservation snail specialist. “There is a snail that we have only collected under one big rock in Nelson.”

She watches the grey warblers come past, the kāhu that’s so quick she can never get a photo of it for an obs. It’s teasing her. She used to be a kaiako, a teacher of te reo Māori, but she’s retired now. She tells me that the Māori verb ako means both to learn and to teach.

“As you teach, you learn, and as you learn, you teach,” she says. “Those are the little subtleties of the reo.”

It’s the perfect metaphor for citizen science, which requires everyone involved to do both learning and teaching—experts lending their knowledge must learn from communities that participate.

“There’s an enormous amount of knowledge being exchanged and shared,” says Colin Meurk, cofounder of iNaturalist NZ. The site was one of New Zealand’s first citizen-science projects—it began in 2006 under the name NatureWatch, but it’s now part of the global iNaturalist database. About 8000 New Zealanders contribute observations. They’ve proved useful for biosecurity, for noticing when new species arrive, or extending the known range of other species. The spread of the giant willow moth around the country was tracked through observations on iNaturalist. Meurk once posted a moss observation from Stewart Island, only to discover it was a new species of ‘poo moss’ (it grows only on dung and carcasses). Lara Shepherd found a fungus called a sandy stiltball, which had never been observed in New Zealand, while Kathy Warburton spotted a mushroom she didn’t recognise while tramping in Central Otago, and it turned out to be the first sighting in 44 years of a critically rare fungus.

Meurk and others began the site out of a concern that essential environmental monitoring data was being lost.

“Growing up in a paper age, through the 70s and 80s, I did a lot of fieldwork and meticulously recorded stuff in little notebooks in longhand, and of course you can’t help but wonder what’s going to become of all of this, going into some dusty archive.”

A side effect of the site, he says, is that it gets people paying attention to what’s around them—even the boring stuff. It teaches people that ordinary things are worth paying attention to.

“It takes an effort to convince people that it’s all important,” he says. “If we only recorded rare species, what a distorted picture of the world we would have. We want people to record the most common things, and record them often, so you have a more robust, real picture of the natural world.”

[Chapter Break]

That’s why the scientists at Bushy Park are analysing and recording everything that’s collected, not just the things that are interesting—but there’s plenty that’s interesting, too.

“I almost now can’t concentrate, I’m so excited about this fly,” says Schnitzler, hunched over a Petri dish flecked with black, an assemblage of wings and thoraxes and legs. “This is a genus that hasn’t been described and I am now in the process of describing it.”

The scientists have set up a work space in the stables, spreading their equipment across the long benches. They’ve brought books and display cases, turning the area into a sort of museum exhibit for entomology.

Blitzers drop past to ask questions. Two women in their 50s linger in the doorway. “So, how do you get into entomology?” one asks, in the same tone one might enquire about getting a record label or an actors’ agent.

Colin Ogle shows off the peripatus to Toby Kleinsman-Hill, centre, and other participants of the hunt for the velvet worm.

Schnitzler, it turns out, was a late-life convert to science, retraining two decades ago at 45, after stints as a carpenter and a travelling magician. He tells them he thinks there are 400 individual insects within his Petri dish. Eventually, he sits back and sighs. “There is a lifetime’s work here for many people.”

That afternoon, botanist Colin Ogle leads a search for the peripatus, the velvet worm with the ability to paralyse its prey by shooting goo out of its head. We’re peeling off bits of rotten log when all of a sudden one of the American university students, Gabe Rehm, lifts a bit of wood and there one is, like a gift we just had to unwrap. Ogle lifts it onto its hand and it proceeds to fire transparent goo onto his fingers. He’s delighted.

The next morning, I wander through the common area by the stables, catching snippets of conversation.

“In your normal circles you can’t use words like ‘parasitism’,” someone sighs.

“Or ‘Hymenoptera’,” another person adds.

“I understand why people want to study snails now.”

There’s a search for the peripatus, which has been lost. Finally, we discover someone put a cup over its vial to stop it being cooked by the sun. It was cooked by the sun anyway.

I join five-year-old Thomas in picking insects out of leaf litter and placing them into a collection vial filled with alcohol. BioBlitz convener Mike Dickison is trying to encourage him to move leaf litter from one pile to another rather than chasing bugs around the same pile, but the insect activity is proving too exciting.

“There’s so much happening right by me!” shouts Thomas. “Ants is here, earwigs is here! Quick, water! Oh, there’s an animal! Look at this guy! Look at this guy!”

He carefully drops something into the vial.

“Look what I found, an animal, and it protects itself!”

“It’s a slater type, isn’t it? An isopod,” says Colin Ogle, looking over his shoulder.

“This is really interesting, this part,” says Thomas.

“Don’t stab it, don’t stab it, we want to try and keep them whole.”

In my pile of leaf litter I find a snail shell that’s barely a speck, a millimetre across, like a grain of sand.

Thomas keeps Rudi Schnitzler company as the entomologist works through another Petri dish of specimens. “This one is as tiny as air,” says the five-year-old. “I can see air, but you guys can’t. It’s really tricky.”

The work identifying species collected during the BioBlitz continues for months afterwards. Robert Hoare finds a species of lichen tuft moth, which has only twice been sighted in the last 70 years. In fact, he finds two of them—which means there’s probably a healthy community of lichen tuft moths making their home at Bushy Park.

Rudi Schnitzler finishes identifying his new genus of fly, and finds two new species. And now, there’s a species list for Bushy Park—with more than 900 entries on it, a picture of the park’s invertebrate communities and the range of minuscule treasures it holds.

I think of other corners of bush around the country and their tiny residents, going about their lives unremarked, uncounted—the flies, slaters, worms and pinhead-sized snails that keep ecosystems running.

“Most of what’s important is not on paper, and most of what’s on paper is in urgent need of revision,” snail expert Karin Mahlfeld told me earlier. “We’re making decisions based on total ignorance—maybe what it’s telling us is don’t rip out any more bush, it’s full of special stuff.”

This story was supported by a grant from the Aotearoa Science Journalism Fund.

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