Turning those long walks along the beach into 'science'

Turning those long walks along the beach into 'science'

  • By Ian McDonald
  •  May 12, 2013
  •  Tags:  Blogs & news Citizen science Communications Tools & Apps

By Ian McDonald

Have you ever wondered how the Atlas of Living Australia might be useful for you? Well a few years ago Libby Hepburn did just that. Having lived on the eastern coast of Australia near Merimbula for the best part of 16 years she has been working with community biodiversity projects for much of that time. She was the project manager for the then embryonic Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre for 8 years and continues to be strongly involved with the Sapphire Coast Marine Society which has been in existence for just over 10 years.

The local coast is especially interesting for its marine biodiversity because of the meeting of two great ocean currents and it, like many places in Australia, is also sensitive to changes in climate. Libby felt strongly that everyone who observes the species that inhabit the region should be encouraged to record it, so that members of the community can note the changes as they occur and have a record for future generations. For many years she wondered if there was some way that her fellow naturalists could record ‘online’ the species they were seeing when they were walking along the beach or while swimming and snorkelling, so this information could be saved and shared.

Everyone agreed that it would be great if some sort of ‘online database’ was openly accessible but as of yet nothing had been created. Various programs were recommended by colleagues but they were either too expensive or too difficult for non-technical people such as Libby and her friends to work with. It was just after 2007 that Libby found out about the Atlas of Living Australia. She read how it was established to achieve a ‘one stop shop’ online recording system for biodiversity data in Australia. It sounded ideal, so she approached Atlas staff about her idea and after initial discussions it became apparent that the Atlas of Living Austrlia could definitely help the Marine Society achieve their goal of developing an online portal so they could start to build an atlas of biodiversity of their coastline.

First things first, the marine society needed to purchase and set up a website so they could link up with the Atlas biodiversity portal. So began the Atlas of Life in the Coastal Wilderness (ALCW) website. Having their own website brought the society into the 21st century and also meant they could freely administer the website (on their own) and change the layout so it was user friendly for their members and users. They could also announce when they were undertaking community surveys, publish recent news and stories and highlight events and achievements.

Once the website was created, the Atlas team created the ALCW data portal, which could be linked from the ALCW website. This portal collects all information from their surveys and observations which have been uploaded to the online database. Since its creation in late 2011 the portal has attracted 109 users and 2770 records have been uploaded for the south coast of NSW region.

The ALCW website states how theirs is a bioregion of particular interest as it spans the landscape from the Great Dividing Range in the west to the southern coast of New South Wales and the northern coast of Victoria. As well as great tracts of National Park forests, heathland and alpine landscapes, this is a coastline of spectacular and unspoiled beauty. In the ocean the rich upwelling’s and significant biodiversity are due to the warm Eastern Australian Current flowing from the north, meeting the cold, nutrient rich current from the Antarctic. The coastal wilderness is the first place where the humpback whales feed on their migrations south after breeding in the tropics.

So far the ALCW data portal has identified 1158 species in the area with a recent species sighting recorded being a Gloomy Octopus (photo taken by Liz Allen). The society has been very successful in increasing the knowledge and awareness about the special marine environment they have in the region. However they didn’t just want marine species records in the portal and also wanted plants in local parks, land animals in the forests and even whether there are invasive species such as weeds or pest animas.

In 2012, the ALCW had one of their most successful surveying events called the ‘Bermagui bioblitz.’ This saw over 300 people take part adding over 1600 records to their portal and 855 new species in a 30 hour period. There were 42 surveys undertaken across a wide range of habitats during the days and night. The bioblitz got lots of media attention and even had people from interstate come and attend and take part. It was a massive effort needing people with varying expertise such as IT gurus, ecologists and the passion of community members and school children to search for new species.

Not only was this bioblitz engaging with the community, it was thoroughly enjoyed by scientists, naturalists and community members alike and the data gathered is also helping the ALA achieving its goals of becoming the most extensive biodiversity portal in Australia. Since the Bermagui Bioblitz, other community and special interest research groups have come forward to contribute. ALCW is now working to increase its database by adding historical data collected in previous years and research projects. To that end they held a “Celebration of the History of Science in our Region” Forum late 2012. There were 12 senior researchers presenting the work they had undertaken in the region, including that of well-known ornithologist Peter Fullagar who has undertaken 53 consecutive years of seabird research on Montague Island. ALCW intends to revisit some of the early research projects to see how things have changed, and in future to work with the guidance of these scientists to establish a range of valuable long-term monitoring projects.

ALCW have undertaken planning sessions on future key projects, how they can improve their data portal and whether they can develop an ‘app’ so that people can use their mobile to record observations. So the collaboration with the ALA is still going strong. If you are interested in contributing to the ALCW project or just finding out more information about how they started their data portal – contact the committee at http://www.alcw.org.au/index.php/get-involved/join-us/ and fill in their online form to become a citizen scientist yourself, or sign up to their website to get news of all new posts of sightings and upcoming events and news.

– The author would like to acknowledge and give special thanks to Libby Hepburn and Liz Allen
for providing me with information for this story, this was appreciated –