A cross-country crowdsourcing campaign aims to map wildflowers in four countries — India, Ethiopia, Turkey and Indonesia. The countries have an incredibly high richness of plant species. But updated data on the distribution of these plants is scant, which opens up an unmet potential for citizen scientists to provide new data on their spread.
Researchers at International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) have harnessed this unmet potential to kick off a crowdsourcing initiative called NatureMap-plants to map wild flowering plants in the four countries, to document and update species’ distribution and spur research and conservation.
Powering the campaign are four existing citizen science projects on iNaturalist that automatically collect wild flowering plant records in the form of geolocated photos added for these countries. As much as possible, these photos are identified by professional botanists and amateur naturalists in the iNaturalist community.
The data is publicly available and the idea is that more georeferenced data points we have, the more good research the scientific community can do in these countries, the more good information exists to call for and support conservation of plant species, said Piero Visconti, a research scholar with the Ecosystems Services and Management program (ESM) at IIASA.
This also benefits the citizen scientist contributors as they know their data is being put to use, and may well help natural habitats and species thrive in the future, he emphasised.
Partnered by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (or Kew Gardens) and U.N. Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), NatureMap-plants differs from the gamut of ongoing citizen science initiatives in possibly being the “first large-scale citizen science campaign to be entirely designed by conservation scientists” with a clear scientific and applied finality in mind.
“For NatureMap-plants, there was a scientific demand before we launched the campaigns, whereas many campaigns start out as local public engagement (as amateur initiative) and then scientists start making use of the data that is collected, which may not have been in the form or locations that are most useful scientifically,” said Visconti.
Visconti is pumped up at the prospects because several botanists around the world are waiting to download the data (which will be publicly available from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility) to update old species distribution maps, create new ones, and possibly identify new species.
The hope and connect factors
Biodiversity informatics researcher Samuel Pironon who is with Kew Gardens is equally motivated because not only is the project ambitious and unique but also because it gives much power to people and a chance for scientists to connect with society.
“Sometimes people can feel hopeless or helpless regarding the current situation of major global biodiversity loss, but this project gives the opportunity to the people to participate and help for its conservation. Moreover, as researchers, we sometimes feel disconnected from the rest of the society working hand in hand with thousands of people from all over the world for the same good cause is just beautiful,” Pironon told Mongabay-India.
Finally, on a more theoretical basis, Pironon feels it is quite interesting to try to understand how, when and where people can help science (and especially biogeography and conservation biology in this case).
Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Pironon said that although (Kew Gardens and partners) have collected geographic information for tens of thousands of plant species, several species, there are regions that are highly undersampled and because of this (undersampling), these species and regions might not be protected in the future by international or national authorities.
“The idea is that local people or tourists can help scientists to put their plants on the map and ultimately help protect those species. More concretely, people can take pictures with their phones of any wild plant,” said Pironon, insisting on the word “wild” as people also often take pictures of exotic plants in their gardens or in pots.
The trends in citizen science in ecology in India
As of July 2019, the platform’s webpage shows India leading the number of observations followed by Turkey, Indonesia and Ethiopia. Pironon believes country size/population seems to have quite a big impact. Because India is bigger and more populated, it has more plant observations. However, 72 percent of the pictures uploaded for India have no species identification, so there is much to do before being able to use all of this information for research.
“Also, as you see on the map, some regions of the country are clearly undersampled. And finally, people upload quite a lot of photos of exotic / garden plants. Having more data for wild plants would be extremely useful,” Pironon said.
Citizen science in ecological research in India is about a decade old with as many as 25 to 30 projects in ecology running at present and the number is expected to grow steadily, according to an analysis by India’s Department of Science and Technology’s Centre for Policy Research at IIT Delhi. Most of these home-grown projects revolve around birds.
The internet, smartphones and a range of IT applications that help in transmission, recording and documentation and tools and software that help in analysis, have been integral to the popularity and inception of these initiatives in India, said the analysis’s co-author Pankaj Sekhsaria.
A smartphone makes collecting citizen science data very easy. Photo by jyliagorbacheva / Pixabay.
Ranking unmet potential
So what drew the scientist’s attention to the four countries, including India? A nifty ranking system that also taps in smartphone usage.
Visconti and colleagues pooled in information from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a publicly available dataset of occurrence records of all living things, containing over 1.3 billion georeferenced data of species occurrences, to identify countries which had few occurrence data for plants in the last 10 years.
Based on GBIF, the scientists effectively ranked countries in increasing order of observations since 2010, to identify those with the least geospatial information in recent years, those for which there is the highest need for more data.
The second dataset considered was how many plants known to science exist in the country, which tells us, said Visconti, how much of the world flora could we sample with a dedicated campaign if people collected plant pictures for a certain proportion of the country.
“The third dataset we looked at is the number of smartphones, which is a proxy for the potential for citizen scientists to collect pictures of flowering plants in the wild. We combined them together to gauge the unmet potential of citizen science to close the gap in plant occurrence data,” Visconti said.
India, China, Iran, The Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Uzbekistan were the top 10 countries with the highest unmet potential to contribute precious new data for mapping plant species distribution.
“China and India were the top two in the overall score for unmet potential. Then our partners (Kew Gardens and UNEP-WCMC) stepped in. They identified among the top 20 countries, those for which they had the best potential to engage the botanist communist, either professional or amateur, thanks to existing collaboration in these countries and other factors,” said Visconti.
So they settled on the four countries based on all the measures and potential.
“The lowest hanging fruit of this data is that we will be able to update existing expand the range maps of the plants. The next step would be to attempt to map range for plants that don’t have range maps yet,” he said.
Visconti beamed with optimism stressing that the greatest ambition is to discover new plant species, it is quite possible that some of the unidentified species in the campaign (over 21,000 photos right now) are new to science, and more will certainly come.
Once the photos are up on the platform, they can be viewed by anyone on Earth and their species name assigned by any naturalist/botanist from the region or anywhere else (at Kew for example).
Pironon elaborated: “Once naturalists reach a consensus on the species name, the name is considered accepted and the attached information can be provided to important data platforms (e.g. GBIF) and used for research programs. In the case of NatureMap, we will use geographic coordinates of these plants to refine or create maps of their distribution and add those to our global map.”
These areas, if rich in plant diversity, will later gain international attention and preservation, he added.
Taking pictures is relatively easy (still very useful and needed) but identifying plant species is more difficult. Pironon said Kew is helping NatureMap to reach identifiers but they really need help from as many naturalists as possible to make this project possible (especially in India).Filtering appropriate photos and more challenges
Of course, there are challenges though. For one, Visconti notes that many citizen scientists don’t know if a species is native or not.
“Many thousands of plant pictures posted on iNaturalist are from botanic gardens, or public and private gardens and pots, while what we need is the observation of species in the wild. Identifying and filtering them out is a huge task, and moving forward we need to better communicate to the public that only plants not planted by humans should be posted,” he explained.
Also, at the moment the focus is only on native species, whereas many naturalised non-native species are posted, e.g. Frangipani in India and Indonesia.
Pironon said they get a lot of data for some very common and popular species (many exotic, invasive, ornamental plants) but little for rarer, native and not-so-popular ones that might ultimately underestimate local/native biodiversity.
The experts acknowledge that many would not know which species do not naturally belong to the place they were photographed, so there is a large post-processing work done behind the scenes, to tick the box on iNaturalist that signal if the species is non-native of the country.
Pironon pointed out the geographic biases in collections driven by citizen science.
“We get more data in the cities, along roads, in some regions more than others, etc. This geographic bias makes analyses tricky, but still, the more information, the best,” he said.
(This story was first published on Mongabay)