Conservation benefits of museum-led citizen science demonstrated

20 January 2017

Children and adults carrying out a wildlife survey

Citizen science programmes created by natural history museums can pass on valuable skills in identifying wildlife and studying the impact of environmental change

A study of museum-led citizen science programmes reveals they 'support conservation both directly, through site and species management, and indirectly through research, education and policy impacts'.

The new paper, co-authored by Museum researchers, highlights the conservation outcomes of 44 citizen science programmes run by three natural history museums - the Natural History Museum in London, the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. It is available in Open Access format in the journal Biological Conservation.

What is citizen science?

Citizen science relies on the collaboration between scientists and members of the public to collect, transcribe, categorise and analyse data on the natural world, which in turn advances our understanding of life on our planet.

The research paper identified four main types of museum-led citizen science activities: short-term events such as BioBlitzes, data entry for digitised collections, field research to answer a specific question, and ongoing monitoring of species abundance and distribution.

A student collecting a wildlife sample

A student takes part in field research. Citizen science aims to inspire a new generation of professional and amateur scientists.
 

UK success stories

The Natural History Museum in London led 15 citizen science projects analysed by the study.

According to Lucy Robinson, Citizen Science Manager at the Museum and co-author of the paper, 'It's really exciting to be sharing evidence that our projects result in tangible outcomes for nature conservation.'

For example, during the 24-hour BioBlitz held at Alexandra Palace Park in June 2010, over 8,000 members of the public gathered in North London and identified over 700 species, including a rare beetle.

Thanks to the data collected that day, the park was designated as a local nature reserve and its management was changed to better conserve locally rare acid grassland.

The Riverfly Partnership, which started at the Museum in 2004 and is now an independent organisation, is another example of the impact of citizen science both locally and on a wider scale.

Anglers and other interested groups throughout the UK are trained to monitor the quality of river water by recording riverfly larvae. This work enables conservation management and habitat restoration efforts throughout the country.

In addition to providing data for reporting by the UK Environment Agency, the initiative produced an action plan used in the UK's response to the international Convention on Biological Diversity.

Meanwhile, the Decoding Nature project, where students worked alongside Museum scientists to generate DNA sequencing data that could help with species identification, highlighted the positive impact such projects could have from an educational perspective.

Questionnaires given to 200 of the participating students provided evidence that 95% of them increased their DNA knowledge and identification skills.

Citizen science aims to inspire a new generation of professional and amateur scientists

The Museum's Decoding Nature project was shown to have a positive impact on students' identification skills and their perception of scientists
 

Unique resources

With their diverse scientific and collections expertise in a single institution, natural history museums are well-placed to create effective citizen science programmes. This is particularly true of projects focused on understanding the impact of past and future environmental change.

One example is the Museum's Orchid Observers project. Citizen scientists extracted flowering dates from both historical collections and contemporary photographs to build a 180-year time series. As part of this work participants identified 200 new sites of wild orchids, including declining species. 

Take part

The Museum has a number of activities that you can contribute to.

In the Big Seaweed Search, members of the public are invited to explore the coastline of the British Isles and submit photographs and records of the seaweeds they find within a chosen plot of seashore. This helps researchers track the impacts of rising sea temperature, non-native seaweed species and ocean acidification.

Another popular initiative is Earthworm Watch, where people dig small holes in different garden habitats and use a free survey pack to record information on the soil and earthworms found. 

A family look for seaweeds in a rock pool

The Big Seaweed Search is a popular ongoing citizen science programme
 

Science for everyone

'One outcome of the study was to identify that evaluation of citizen science projects needs to be improved to effectively track their impact on nature conservation,' says Lucy.

Benefitting from broad visitor demographics, museums have the opportunity to reach a range of people who would not normally participate in science-related activities.

'We know that protecting the natural world is a strong motivating factor for many of the people who take part in our projects - and indeed for the Museum staff who initiate these projects - and this work would not be possible without the time and dedication of citizen scientists across the world.'

  • By Marie-Claire Eylott

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