Artistry, romance and knavery in our garden: it’s the sublime satin bowerbird in #birdoftheyear | Nick Evershed

There’s a bowerbird building a bower in my backyard, so this year I’m on Team Bowerbird

It has been a warm start to spring, and my neighbourhood has been absolutely overrun by a mob of rowdy, horny, young satin bowerbirds. I’m assuming they’re mostly juvenile males from the behaviour (hanging out in parks, acting moody, vaping …) but I’m no ornithologist, so take my observations with a grain of salt.

One of these rambunctious bowerbird youths has been constructing his bower a metre from where my kids jump on the trampoline.

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A bowerbird builds his bower a metre from Sydney suburbia – video

A rambunctious bowerbird youth has been constructing his bower a metre from where Guardian Australia data and interactive editor Nick Evershed’s kids jump on the trampoline. The kids have been rapt, watching the bowerbird between the fence slats as he builds and practises dance moves, singing and occasionally bringing in a blue bottle cap or yellow flower. The Evershed family went full David Attenborough and set up a few cameras to record this randy bowerbird

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Citizen scientists collect more nature data than ever, showing us where common and threatened species live

Citizen scientists collect more nature data than ever, showing us where common and threatened species live


Citizen science isn’t new anymore. For decades, keen amateur naturalists have been gathering data about nature and the environment around them – and sharing it.

But what is new is the rate at which citizen scientists are collecting and sharing useful data. Last year, 10 million observations of species were collected. Our new research shows 9.6 million of those came from citizen scientists. It makes intuitive sense. There are only so many professional researchers. But nearly everyone now has a smartphone.

But if anyone can contribute data, how do you know it’s reliable? Was it really an antechinus, or was it a black rat? Despite the growing success in collecting data, there has long been scepticism over how reliable the data are when used to, say, estimate how abundant a threatened species is.

It turns out, citizen science is extremely useful – especially when paired with professionally collected data.

How did we test it?

It’s now much simpler and quicker to be a citizen scientist than it used to be. You might take a photo of an unusual mammal you spot at a campground, record your observations, and upload it to an app or website. This, in turn, has helped standardise the data and make it even more useful. Around Australia, thousands of people contribute regularly through platforms like iNaturalist, DigiVol, 1 Million Turtles, FrogID and Butterflies Australia.

When you upload your observation, it’s recorded in the database of the individual app. But data from all major citizen science apps is also shared with the Atlas of Living Australia, Australia’s largest open-source open-access biodiversity data repository.

That’s important, because it means we can aggregate sightings across every app to get a better sense of what’s happening to a species or ecosystem.

To tackle the question of data reliability, we looked at what proportion of total records added to the data repository came from citizen scientists.

Then we chose three common species – shingleback lizards, Peron’s tree frog, and the red-browed firetail finch – and compared citizen science observations with professionally recorded data across their distribution.

For the shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa), the majority of locations where it was sighted came from professional projects such as government programs and museums, with only 18.5% of locations drawn largely from citizen science.

figure showing shingleback lizard locations from citizen science
These three figures show species observations by citizen science method (green) and non-citizen science (purple). This is for the shingleback lizard. Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

Peron’s tree-frog (Litoria peronii) had 33.5% of its locations mainly contributed by citizen scientists.

figure showing peron's tree frog locations from citizen science
Peron’s tree frog. Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

But for the red-browed firetail (Neochmia temporalis), citizen science was the main contributor in over 86.5% of its locations.

figure showing fire tailed finch locations from citizen science
Red-browed firetail finch. Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

Why the difference? We believe it’s due to the impact of long-running citizen science projects driven by enthusiasts. Birders are a large enthusiast community, while people who go herping (looking for reptiles) are a smaller group.

As a reflection of community enthusiasm, birds make up nearly 50% of all species observation records in the Atlas of Living Australia, with the Australian magpie the most commonly recorded species.

Read more: From counting birds to speaking out: how citizen science leads us to ask crucial questions

What about rarely recorded species?

Next, we looked at several species with fewer than 1,000 records to find out whether citizen science contributes less data when species are less conspicuous.

In fact, the reverse was often true. For some rare species, citizen science is proving invaluable in ongoing monitoring.

Take the threatened black rockcod (Epinephelus daemelii), a large, territorial fish which been decimated by spearfishing and other pressures.

Here, citizen science proved its worth, adding 63% of observations. Most data came from a few high profile projects, such as annual reef and fish surveys.

figure showing citizen science observations of black rockcod
This map shows black rockcod observations by citizen scientists and non-citizen scientists. Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

Citizen science is coming of age

For decades, citizen science has struggled to feed data into professional monitoring and conservation efforts.

But this is increasingly unfair. By combining citizen science data with professionally collected data, we can get the best of both worlds – a much richer picture of species’ distributions.

It’s only going to get better, as observation and citizen scientist numbers grow each year. There’s a large spectrum of projects, many with excellent data quality controls in place.

Citizen science has come a long way. The data created by keen amateurs is now of better quality, aided by new technologies and support from researchers.

Apps which add automatic time stamps, dates and locations make it much easier to validate observations.

This suggests there’s untapped potential for citizen science to contribute consistent data over significant parts of many species’ ranges, though the strength of this contribution will vary by species.

There’s still more to do to help citizen scientists contribute as usefully as they’d like to. For instance, observations tend to cluster in the regions around cities, because that’s where citizen scientists live. Citizen scientists can also favour larger, charismatic and brightly coloured species.

One method of improving collection could be to focus the interest of citizen scientists on a wider range of species.

For citizen scientists themselves, a big part of the appeal is the ability to create useful data to help the environment. Citizen scientist Jonathon Dashper, for instance, spends his spare time looking for frogs and recording fish. Why? He told us:

My drive to contribute to citizen science is to further my understanding of the natural world and contribute to decision making on environmental matters. Using citizen science platforms, I have been able to learn so much about harder-to-identify organisms.

Read more: Scientists need help to save nature. With a smartphone and these 8 tips, we can get our kids on the case

The Conversation

Erin Roger works for the Atlas of Living Australia and CSIRO

Cameron Slatyer works for the Atlas of Living Australia.

Dax Kellie works for the Atlas of Living Australia and CSIRO.

Playful whales can use seaweed as a hat – or exfoliant. This “kelping” behaviour is more common than we realised

Playful whales can use seaweed as a hat – or exfoliant. This “kelping” behaviour is more common than we realised

WA Western Whale Watch Australia, CC BY-NC-ND

If you’re a whale, there’s often not too much to see out in deeper water. Perhaps that’s why so many whales get playful with kelp and other seaweed.

Once might have been chance. But we’ve collected over 100 examples on social media of whales playing with seaweed, known as “kelping”. It’s not just one species –  gray whales, southern and northern right whales, and humpback whales all do it.

To date, there’s far more social media and news reports on whale play with seaweed than scientific literature. A 2011 study in New South Wales described these interactions as playful behaviour. Other researchers have documented instances of whales moving logs through the water in Colombia or interacting with jellyfish on the United States east coast.

Our new research compiles data from over 100 kelping events captured on social media. From this, we deduced two things. First, it is playful. And second, it’s likely to have a useful component, such as using the seaweed to scratch an itch (hard without hands), brush off baby barnacles, or flick away whale lice – parasites that drive the whales mad.

How do whales find kelp – and what do they do with it?

Sightings of this behaviour tend to occur in regions where kelp is abundant. That’s no surprise. Kelp is a very strong seaweed and can take the punishment a whale can dish out.

Most videos and photos capturing this behaviour are of humpback whales as they migrate. That’s also not surprising. Humpback whales are one of the most common species. They tend to migrate closer to shore. And they do more activities at the surface compared to other baleen whales, which is why beach goers and whale-watching boats most often see humpback whales.

Until now, kelp play has been documented in Australia, the United States and Canada. But this is likely due to the fact these regions have a larger number of people who do whale-watching and who use social media platforms to share their observations.

Drones have given us a new way of studying this behaviour. In several drone videos, we can see humpback whales actively seeking out seaweed. These interactions aren’t just fleeting – whales can play with it or use it for up to an hour.

Read more: Whale of a tale? The stories about whales helping tackle climate change are overblown

During kelping, whales tend to lift the seaweed up and balance it on their rostrum, their flat upper head.

They also seem willing to share their kelp patches with other whales, engaging in cooperative behaviours such as rolling, lifting and balancing the seaweed together.

So is it play? In part, yes. When animal researchers look at a behaviour, it has to meet three criteria to be play. First, it seems voluntary and enjoyable. Second, it’s different to more serious behaviours. It can be exaggerated or deliberately incomplete. And third, the animals don’t seem stressed or hungry, suggesting they’re in good health. Kelping meets all three of these.

For animals, play has long-term benefits such as boosting their coordination and movement skills. Balancing seaweed may also be stimulating for the whales, as their rostrums have fine hair follicles. It could even be ticklish.

Kelping might be more than just play

Toying with seaweed might have benefits other than just being fun. Some of us enjoy seaweed wraps at a spa or as a facial mask.

It might be the same for whales. Some seaweed species have been found to reduce bacterial growth, which could be useful for whales, as their skin hosts a range of viruses and bacteria. Whales have to constantly shed their skin to keep on top of bacterial growth.

There are other possibilities. Pushing through seaweed again and again could also help whales rid themselves of unwanted guests, such as the early life stages of barnacles and sea lice. Because whales are so large, many species of invertebrates hitch a lift or spend their lives on these creatures – and often to the whale’s annoyance. Grey whales off the coast of Mexico have repeatedly approached humans for help in keeping down numbers of itchy whale lice, which are actually more closely related to a shrimp or small crab than to lice.

Humpback whale interacting with kelp in California

Similar self-medication behaviour has been reported in other marine mammals, such as when Red Sea dolphins rub over sponges and soft corals to, scientists believe, help skin conditions. Even green sea turtles use corals and rocks to clean their carapace.

As more of us use drones and better cameras, we’re likely to see more whale kelping caught on camera and shared in the coming years.

Kelping shows us how much we still have to learn even about well-studied whale species such as the humpback whale. The gentle and inquisitive nature of these whales shines through when we see them play or use seaweed. Even now, there are many mysteries yet to be uncovered in nature.

Read more: Humpback whales have been spotted ‘bubble-net feeding’ for the first time in Australia (and we have it on camera)

The Conversation

Olaf Meynecke receives funding from a private charitable trust as part of the Whales & Climate Research Program and is the CEO of Humpbacks & High-rises Inc