Citizen scientists across the world will soon boost efforts to track threatened species on the western end of Kangaroo Island, which was devastated by the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires.

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Photo Credit: Aaron Storer via Getty Images.

Located southwest of Adelaide, more than a third of the 440,000ha island was burnt, an incredible blow to animal populations and their habitats.   

To help prioritise recovery and conservation efforts, the Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife (KILW) program set up a survey to record the presence of native and feral species within the fire-affected region. The program focuses on threatened species, including the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart. 

Photographs taken by motion sensor-activated cameras installed inside specially constructed refuge tunnels on the western end of the island record animals present in the tunnels at five-minute intervals. To date these images have been analysed by a small team of only one or two people, a laborious and time-intensive process. However, this will soon change through a new collaboration between the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) and Minderoo Foundation.  

As part of its Healthy Landscapes Mission, Minderoo Foundation is providing funding to allow more citizen scientists to be trained to analyse the footage and upload data to the Atlas of Living Australia database, through a number of community workshops. Minderoo Foundation is also sponsoring the project cameras, an all-terrain vehicle for KILW staff to travel within the fire-affected region, and a recovery pod for a field office. 

With the efforts of a growing fleet of citizen scientists who will soon be able to assist with the identification process via an online tool, the photographic data will be processed much more rapidly, helping to inform and prioritise threat reduction activities and develop management plans in collaboration with the landholders on whose properties the tunnels are installed. 

ACSA will also use the funding to engage the services of a specialist ecologist on the ground. The project will be set up on www.zooniverse.org – a global citizen science platform, so that citizen scientists across the world can log on and help analyse the images, with some guidance.

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A grasstree in a healthy bush landscape. Photo Credit: Australian Citizen Science Association.

ACSA National Coordinator Amy Slocombe said the peak body played a significant role in advocating for and promoting citizen science, which was particularly important when taking into account the impacts of COVID-19.

“This project provides a way for anyone to participate in the recovery efforts for Kangaroo Island’s animal populations,” Ms Slocombe said.  

“With funding from Minderoo Foundation to help train the participants and establish the identification manuals, the project truly demonstrates how anyone can contribute to the progress of science, not just specialists with years of training.”

In an exciting development slated for launch in the new year, the project will soon include a groundbreaking artificial intelligence (AI) element, where camera software will be able to do a first pass of categorisation, by filtering out blank photos and then categorising the remaining images into main groups such as birds, reptiles or mammals, allowing a more targeted and rapid assessment. 

“This will eliminate a portion of the citizen scientist work but will allow us to really churn through the data and assist with the development of timely management plans,” Ms Slocombe said. 

The project will be underway for at least two years. It will help create an understanding of the affected animals’ immediate responses to their impacted environment and will inform long-term management plans. 

Ms Slocombe said the collaboration with Minderoo Foundation would also benefit ACSA through its exposure to a much bigger pool of potential citizen scientists. 

“Through Minderoo Foundation’s extensive networks, we can make more people aware of what citizen scientists can do, not only on this project, but on the hundreds that are operating across Australia.” 

Minderoo Foundation is working with others like ACSA to build a national “living landscape” evidence base to better understand disaster risk and ecosystem needs before, during and after disaster events and develop interventions that target landscape and wildlife health and resilience. 

“With funding from Minderoo Foundation to help train the participants and establish the identification manuals, the project truly demonstrates how anyone can contribute to the progress of science, not just specialists with years of training.”

Amy Slocombe, ACSA National Coordinator

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