Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Citizen science - sharing the excitement

In a guest blog, ecologist Michael Pocock of CEH shares his enthusiasm for citizen science.

There is a buzz of excitement around citizen science currently. At its best citizen science can allow excellent engagement of people with science and nature, and it can be real science.

Last week, scientists at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Natural History Museum published a review of citizen science [PDF], which looks at the current state of citizen science, looks back on its history, and looks forward to the future potential of citizen science, including the use of technology.

Knowing all about citizen science is one thing, but knowing how to do it is another – so we also wrote a "how to" Guide to Citizen Science [PDF] which includes really practical advice based on our experience and all the evidence we collected during the review. Both publications were commissioned by the United Kingdom Environmental Observation Framework (UKEOF) and can also be downloaded from their website.

Of course, the things that today we call "citizen science" are not brand new. In Britain, the recording of animals and plants by volunteers has been going on for centuries, especially since the time of people like John Ray (the "father of natural history"). This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Atlas of the British Flora – with the monumental, magnificent effort of botanists that provided the data. Over the past 35 years, the Biological Records Centre at CEH has been publishing atlases of animal and plant groups at the rate of three per year. Many of those atlases now are repeat surveys, so we can chart the changing distributions of animals and plants. Clearly, volunteer data collection is much older than the term "citizen science".

However, the future of citizen science is looking exciting. There are lots of technological innovations (which especially appeals to the geek in us: how about plugging a pollution sensor into your smartphone, do-it-yourself remote sensing with a camera attached to a kite or harvesting twitter messages to track the spread of tree diseases?). There is a huge diversity of projects that allow mass participation; simply download an app and you can use your smartphone as a handheld data recorder to contribute to real science! But there is also lots of fantastic face-to-face engagement, which provides a quality of engagement almost impossible via the internet. Volunteers can provide data, but they can also get involved with analysing data and interpreting results. And citizen science is not limited to professionals asking volunteers to do something – more and more volunteers are working collaboratively with scientists, so that communities get answers to the questions that are important to them. Finally, the data collected by volunteers (with the appropriate checks and balances for quality control) is becoming increasingly trusted and used by scientists and policy-makers.

I’m passionate about citizen science. It provides us, as society, with the data we need to address important questions around environmental change. It also provides a way in which anyone can get involved in science and, in many cases, to get engaged with their natural world. Citizen science, at its best, is real science and potentially life-changing engagement (oh, and it is great fun!) We hope that our enthusiasm for citizen science shines through the Report and the Guide!

Dr Michael Pocock

Additional information

Dr Michael Pocock is an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. He was one of the team of authors on the two new publications about citizen science commissioned by UKEOF and written by CEH and the Natural History Museum mentioned in the article. The Understanding Citizen Science & Environmental Monitoring project was led by Dr Helen Roy of CEH. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Update - Ash dieback resources from CEH

Ash dieback is continuing to dominate UK environmental headlines with the BBC and Guardian devoting considerable resources to the story today.

CEH has been busy collating information relevant to the problem from our long-term UK data sets and projects, and also from our scientists who work on tree issues.

Dr Michael Pocock, an ecologist from the Biological Records Centre (BRC) at CEH writes, "Based on the current evidence, it seems likely that the spread of ash dieback cannot be stopped in the UK. If this disease takes off and does kill many of our ash trees, in a similar manner to the sequence of events in other places in Europe, there is a potential for very serious impact on our countryside.  Trees and woodlands are hugely important in our ecosystems, both in terms of capturing and storing carbon, within cities for decreasing air pollution, for recreation, for landscape aesthetics, and finally of course for wildlife."

There are many insects and other animals and plants that depend on ash trees and ash woodland. Dr Marc Botham from CEH says, "Over 100 invertebrates have been recorded feeding on Ash in the Database of Insects and their Food Plants (DBIF) , including almost 50 moths, over 25 bugs and more than 20 beetles.  Over a third of these have been recorded solely on Ash trees, with a number of mites and flies in particular, entirely dependent on them. In addition, some species like the Dusky Thorn, a moth found throughout England and Wales and whose caterpillars rely on ash, have already declined significantly across their range in the UK."

Ecological background for ash can be found within the Online Atlas of British and Irish Flora on the Biological Records Centre website  including 4 distribution maps. The BSBI Tetrad Map shows that ash has been recorded from most 2km squares - the gaps in England are recording gaps rather than genuine absence.

Yesterday we published a summary of data on ash tree distribution using data analysis from one of our existing long-term, Great Britain (GB) wide data sources, the Countryside Survey (CS). The full analysis can be read here [PDF]. The CS team have done more work overnight and have just sent me an updated map showing ash coverage density within GB.
Dr Lindsay Maskell writes, "We used CS data to work out the areal extent of Ash in each of the 32 (note not 45) CS land classes. Then using the 2007 Land Cover Map and the information it provides on the amount of broadleaved, mixed and yew woodland in each square kilometre across GB, the estimated areal extents were scaled accordingly."
This is the new map:


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Mapping the distribution of Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) in Great Britain

A newly arrived disease is threatening one of Britain’s most common trees, the Ash. According to the Forestry Commission, “Chalara dieback of ash is a serious disease of ash trees caused by a fungus called Chalara fraxinea (C. fraxinea). The disease causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees, and it can lead to tree death.”
CEH has been asked to prepare a summary of data on ash tree distribution for the relevant government departments and agencies. The analysis was carried out using one of our existing long-term, Great Britain (GB) wide data sources, the Countryside Survey (CS). Countryside Survey is a study or ‘audit’ of the natural resources of the UK’s countryside, which has been carried out five times between 1978 and 2008.
The ash tree distribution analysis, which can be read here [PDF], uses CS data to estimate how prevalent ash is across the countryside. It confirms:
  • that Ash is the most common hedgerow tree species (i.e. species growing as a full standard as part of a hedgerow)
  • that there are an estimated 2 million individual ash trees (outside of woodlands which contain tens of millions of ash trees) in GB
  • that Ash is the second most common individual tree species in GB (after the Oak)
  • that there is approx 214.4 (‘000 hectares) of ash woodland in GB
  • that Ash trees increased in number in linear features, which include hedgerows, between 1978 (the first survey) and 2007 (the fifth survey).
The analysis was used to produce maps of the areal extent of Ash trees and individual distribution, including this map:
Areal extent of ash based on % cover in Broadleaved woodland habitat parcels,
mapped using landclass means. Shading relates to % landclass containing
ash woodland.

Additional links

Slimy Science Creature Challenge at Cumbria Big Bang Fair 2012

Staff and students from CEH hosted a stand at a science careers fair in Carlisle last month, during which budding young scientists were able to take on the Slimy Science Creature Challenge!

In total, a team of six staff and students from CEH’s Lancaster site created a stand for this year’s “Cumbria Big Bang”, which was held at Carlisle racecourse on 16 and 17 October 2012. The event was organised by Cumbria STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Ltd as a careers fair for 11-18 year old students from local schools and FE colleges, with the primary objective of helping to inspire and enthuse the next generation of young people about these subjects.

Getting the CEH stand ready

The main focus of our stand was a prize-based competition, which involved participants rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into an ecology related scientific challenge. Fifty fridge magnets with images of organisms from different trophic levels lay hidden in a large container of green goo (made from gellibaff, a harmless powder which holds 400 times its own weight in water). 

Contestants getting stuck into the slime.

Contestants had 60 seconds to delve into the slime to save as many creatures from the goo as possible.  In extra time, competitors had to correctly transfer the creatures to the right trophic level, i.e. decomposers, primary producers, secondary producers, secondary consumers and top predators. Frantic decision making often led the young scientists to build futuristic food chains, involving top predator pandas!

Our stand wasn't just about playing with slime. We took a microscope and showed the students the wide variety of soil animals that can be found in a compost heap such as a woodlouse, millipede, slug, various different worms and springtails. We also presented the kinds of jobs CEH does in Lancaster, including fieldwork, laboratory experiments, working with data, writing reports and presenting our science to the public. 

Everyone that took part was rewarded with a worm – the jelly variety! Those with the most correct answers made it onto our leader board, with four fantastic winners being awarded a pocket LED mini microscope each.

Our staff enjoyed the experience of meeting the students and hopefully the budding young scientists were encouraged too with what they learned about CEH and a career in science.
More photos from the event can be viewed on our Flickr photostream.
Written by Jacky Chaplow and Harriet Richardson.
Thanks also to the rest of the CEH team at the event: Elaine Potter, Judith Garforth, Andrew Sier and Claudia Moeckel.
Additional links