In the tropical forests of Ujung Kulon Peninsula, Indonesia, the last living population of critically endangered Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) graze on leaves and saplings, and keep cool by bathing in mud holes. Historically, Javan rhinos lived all over Southeast Asia and parts of China, however poaching and habitat loss have taken their toll. With fewer than 60 individuals left in the Indonesian population and none in captivity, scientists and conservationists became gravely concerned about how long these elusive rhinos would survive. Then in 2010, video camera traps set up in Ujung Kulon National Park captured footage of two Javan rhino mothers with calves. This footage provided hope that the Javan rhino population may continue to grow.
Animal scientists worldwide are increasingly using camera traps as a vital research tool. WildCount started in 2012 encompassing more than 300 motion-sensing cameras capturing animals inhabiting 150 parks and reserves. Some of the cameras use white light, however infrared light is particularly useful for nocturnal animals disturbed by camera flashes.
WildCount will continue over 10 years and will assess how native and pest species are faring. You can find out more about the project by visiting the NSW Environment website. The advantage of camera traps is that scientists can observe animals behaving naturally within their environments. A significant challenge, is that camera traps can generate hundreds of thousands, if not millions of images. Someone must examine each image to determine whether there’s an animal in the frame, identify the animal and, if appropriate, describe some element of its behaviour.
Some computer programs can identify animals by the markings on their coats, but only when the photos are of a certain quality. Generally, a human spotter is much better suited to this task. However, can you imagine the time it would take a research team to classify all these images?
Enter citizen scientists.
To combat this problem, scientists are increasingly outsourcing classification of camera trap images to online communities of volunteers through crowdsourcing platforms such as the Australian Museum’s DigiVol and Wildlife Spotter projects.
These websites present camera trap images from a diverse range of scientific research projects (including WildCount). You can read why each project is important, what kind of animals you might expect to see, or what kind of animal behaviour you might observe. Guides and tutorials give you tips on classifying and online forums provide an opportunity to engage with your community of online citizen scientists.
So, do you fancy a trip to the desert? Perhaps you would like to classify animals found in the Northern Territory’s Watarrka National Park? Here researchers from Charles Darwin University have set up camera traps at waterholes to better understand the local biodiversity. You can help to classify frogs, goannas and spinifex pigeons among other desert animals.
Or is birdwatching more your style? Researchers from James Cook University in Queensland are researching the nesting behaviour of Pied Imperial Pigeons in Northern Australia using automated cameras focused on their nests. You can help by answering questions about the number, age and behaviour of these birds. There’s a project to suit every keen citizen scientist.