Snigdha Konar sat on her bed in Kolkata, India, counting kangaroos, not sheep, on her laptop to unwind at night for eight weeks. Eight thousand kilometres away in Kangaroo Island, local artist and landowner Peter Hastwell started logging echidna droppings on his smartphone.
“I have the dubious, probably international, award for collecting the most echidna scat from one location,” he says.
Konar and Hastwell are two of 2100 citizen scientists, from more than a dozen countries, who have helped monitor the recovery of native species from the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20. Australia-wide, three billion animals were affected.
“The fires drew worldwide attention,” says Konar, a PhD scholar and archaeologist. “The photos of animals attempting to escape through the flames were especially moving.”
Konar came across the DigiVol (Digital Volunteer) Bushfire Recovery Projects on the Australian Museum website in 2022. “It offers volunteers a unique opportunity to engage in virtual exploration and connection with nature,” she says. Rangers in a variety of locations covered by the program set up motion-triggered camera traps, then upload the images to an online portal for volunteers to search.
Konar has also located stranded mouse-like dunnarts on her virtual expeditions – 95 per cent of their habitat was destroyed in the fires. Rangers have used feedback like hers to rescue and move the tiny marsupials to feral-free, fenced-off bushland.
DigiVol was developed by the Australian Museum in collaboration with the Atlas of Living Australia and the CSIRO. It was especially popular during the pandemic, when borders shut and people were confined to their homes.
“Citizen science is a way of getting data on a scale that is not possible any other way,” says Jessie Oliver, executive officer of the Australian Citizen Science Association. “More eyes are looking, more ears are listening, with more people providing more information than a small team of scientists could ever gather alone.
“It involves members of the public playing a pivotal role in investigations,” she says. “Whether sharing outdoor observations or making sense of online data, these scientific endeavours are allowing us all to learn about biodiversity at scales not previously possible.”
Dirk Holman, a marine coordinator for National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia, is collecting footage for a DigiVol project to save the now-endangered Australian sea lion. Clubbed almost to extinction by sealers for their furs in the 1800s, the few surviving colonies on the most remote low-lying islands and rocky outposts escaped the climate-fuelled mega-fires, only to be engulfed by rising oceans.
Holman is a solitary figure on remote clifftops, flying a drone to monitor the alarming drop in the sea lion’s numbers. Fewer than 12,000 survive. Most of the 80 colonies are dotted along the Spencer Gulf, Kangaroo Island and the eastern Great Australian Bight. Some are on remote islands off the west coast.
“The sea lion spotter citizen science project was born out of desperation,” says Holman. “How do we put them on the radar? We got local teachers and schoolkids involved, with about 10,000 spotters from 16 different countries. Somehow it went global.
“The Australian sea lion is in dire straits,” Holman says. “Rising sea levels are going to claim some colonies quick smart. The rocky outposts provide no shade. During heatwaves, the rocks bake.”
The overall reduction in pup numbers over three generations is estimated to be about 64 per cent, according to a recent report Holman helped write. Now, a trial of pup shelters is under way.
“We’ve been lucky enough to get some federal funding through the National Environmental Science Program to deploy underwater cameras, identifying sea lion foraging habits, prey preferences and areas of biological importance,” he says. “The Australian Sea Lion Recovery Foundation charity is in its infancy and has raised extra cash donations. But at this stage it is not enough. We are just doing what we can, when we can, with what we can scrape together to save them.”
The State of the Environment report released by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water in July last year noted Australia had lost more mammal species than any other continent. In October 2022, the department’s Threatened Species Action Plan: Towards Zero Extinctions set out to protect and conserve 30 per cent of Australia’s land mass and invest $224.5 million in saving threatened species. Scientists such as Brendan Wintle, professor of conservation ecology at the University of Melbourne, said $2 billion was needed.
Tanya Plibersek, the minister for the environment and water, responded by saying the Labor government was “investing more in the environment than any government in Australian history”.
Protecting wildlife from extinction is more than an altruistic act. It could also be key to our survival. The data volunteers collect is available globally for scientists, policymakers, educators and environmental planners.
“Models in nature are everywhere,” says Dr Peggy Rismiller, a Kangaroo Island biologist and artist. “We’ve had architects studying air movement designs in termite mounds and engineers looking to apply the solar mechanism used by the tiger snake. We just have to look and learn from them.”
Rismiller, who is internationally recognised for her 35-year research on echidnas, recounts how she was enjoying lunch in London after presenting a talk at a science conference when she got a message to contact NASA. They wanted to talk about sending an echidna into space.
Echidnas are “the best survivors on the planet today”, says Rismiller, noting they were around when dinosaurs roamed the planet. They dug underground during the fire, but their key survival mechanism – which has attracted global scientific attention – is self-induced torpor. Echidnas can put themselves in a state of suspension at will.
“NASA suggested sending echidnas into space to learn how people could adapt this physiological state,” Rismiller says. “Understanding the mechanisms of how they do it would be phenomenal, not just for space travel.”
Still, the challenge they face today is truly existential. “Echidnas go back 120 million years … but now they are endangered,” says Rismiller. Human impact, habitat loss, traffic and feral predators are taking their toll. Cats know to flip the spiny creature on its back and disembowel it.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” she says.
Here too, citizen science can play a role. Rismiller pioneered EchidnaWatch, the forerunner of the EchidnaCSI app Peter Hastwell carries with him, which more than 9000 people have downloaded. In September, the federal government “declared war” on feral cats, which are estimated to have played a role in two-thirds of mammal extinctions over the past 200 years, and is funding feral cat eradication on the island. DigiVols have worked online logging cats caught on camera traps, and now AI is taking up some of the heavy lifting. Rismiller says it took time for data input to teach the cameras to identify a cat; now it can relay a photo in seconds, transmitting 5000 images a day. Just 25 of these solar-powered cameras are estimated to save 40 days of staff time sorting through thousands of images. There are now about 200 installed on Kangaroo Island.
It is now four years since lightning ignited fire on the island. Two-thirds of the bushland of yuccas, hakeas and Mallee gum burnt to the ground. Now trees stretch bare burnt arms to the sky, waist-high in frocks of new foliage. Kangaroos have rebounded, the dunnart has survived and rare flora such as the Paracaleana duck orchid is in bloom again.
Snigdha Konar completed her DigiVol project in October 2022 and is working full-time on her PhD. She says she would volunteer again. Hastwell sets traps for feral cats on his property through the Land for Wildlife local group and continues to log sightings of endangered species.
Visitors to Kangaroo Island can now go on citizen science eco expeditions by downloading the Passport to Recovery app.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Spies like us".
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