Citizen science in the times of lockdown

The website eBird lists lakhs of observations on the 10,000 bird species around the world — but that is the least of what it does. With projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count and Nestwatch underway year after year, it pulls together data gathered by everyday citizens in almost every continent: data that, when put together, throws up images of migration patterns, shifting flight paths, rise or fall of populations, changes in behaviour of entire species due to climate change or other factors.

On similar lines, Butterflies of India is one of numerous initiatives under the Biodiversity Atlas India family of websites that collate citizen-contributed, peer-reviewed photos and sightings of various species, including reptiles, mammals and more.

Says key BAI member Krushnamegh Kunte, “The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and travel restrictions have resulted in massive growth of data on our citizen science platform. The increase is most acute on the Butterflies of India website, where we have received over 17,000 observations since the lockdown in late March. This is nearly 20% of all the observations on the website that we have received in the past 10 years, which is staggering.”

Citizen science in the times of lockdown

Citizen science seems to be one of the few things going strong through the COVID-19 lockdown: not only are established initiatives seeing more activity, but fresh ones are also springing up.

Kunte explains how, ironically, a lack of fieldwork seems to have facilitated this surge: “Our veteran as well as new contributors are going several years back into their image collections and uploading observations to the website. Since most of the people cannot travel and observe butterflies in the field at present, going back to the images is one way to rekindle the memories of great field trips.”

One of the newer initiatives is the Chennai-based Young Naturalists Network, which has a little over 30 members so far. The network is trying to keep millennial and Generation Z’s interest in the environment piqued, and is garnering the support of city institutions to do so. Their latest activity was an online Nature Trail workshop, with five speakers discussing five Nature hotspots in the city: “Stella Maris College, Sholinganallur-Pallikaranai, Adyar Eco Park, Guindy National Park and IIT,” lists founder Mahathi Narayanaswamy, adding, “Around 120 people attended the session, which was hosted by Stella Maris Eco Club.”

As lockdowns are extended in states, more people are finding the time to study at the natural world around them. Hence, initiatives like the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation’s 10-year-old SeasonWatch project, are drawing attention. SeasonWatch attempts to observe how trees around the country change from season to season. It has as many as 924 schools as participants, and has recorded 3,95,932 observations on 86,234 trees till date.

Geetha Ramaswami, programme manager of SeasonWatch, says participation has been consistent through the lockdown, particularly from Kerala. But she does add: “From March 23, 2020, SeasonWatch received a total of 16,883 observations on 3,636 unique trees... Compared to last year, this is quite low (for the same duration, we received over 40,000 observations). This is because most registered trees are on school campuses and with restricted school times, this is expected.”

Citizen science in the times of lockdown

The project, she says, is open to anyone, child or adult, who wants to record the flowering and fruiting of trees. “We have 134 species in our list, including avenue trees, native trees, and exotic trees. You can pick a species from the list and register either one or a number of trees in that species, depending on what grows around your home and campus. Then, you have to record the quantity of leaves, flowers, and fruits every week.”

The range is diverse — from the Himalayan maple to the tropical toddy palm, and the ornamental African tulip to the medicinal neem. Geetha adds that some of the species listed are locally abundant in particular areas, but not commonly found elsewhere. “Our contributors from Meghalaya, for instance, are able to give us updates about the Himalayan cherry tree which grows only in those mountains.”

Another way of recording information, she states, is “a one-off: like a tree that you might have seen while travelling and wanted to keep on record, but cannot keep track of. A lot of our contributions are of this kind as well.”

The bottom line is, no matter where in the country you are, you can help keep track of whether or not your local flora and fauna are flourishing. It can be done from your backyard, balcony or window; in between work from home, studies from home and household chores. So what better time to begin, than now?

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 5:06:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/indian-citizen-sciences-tree-and-butterfly-projects-during-lockdown/article32331947.ece

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