Category: Field-based citizen science

My Year in Bhutan

By Danielle Northey, ACSA member and volunteer

Danielle Northey with a Rheum nobile, a peculiar species of rhubarb which grows above 4000m

As I snuggled with my daughter in the warm autumn sun streaming through the window of our home nestled in the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, I commented that the peach tree was beginning to lose its leaves. I said winter was on its way and that I was waiting for the Yellow-billed blue magpies to return to our garden. As if by cue, a Yellow-billed blue magpie streaked past our window. These majestic magpies are nothing like Australian magpies. They have elongated tails which make them glide through the air. Their tails are stripy and their bills are yellow, as you might expect, but I would not call them blue. The first magpie of the season reminded me that we had come a full cycle: our year on the Australian Volunteer Program in Bhutan was nearly over. It also reminded me that my connection with nature has fundamentally changed, thanks to citizen science.

You may have heard about Bhutan because its leaders measure progress by Gross National Happiness instead of GDP? Contrary to a common misnomer, the Bhutanese do not claim to be the happiest people in the world but they do consider and acknowledge that progress means more than economic development. Instead, environmental conservation, sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture and good governance are their chosen indicators of progress. If only our politicians would do the same!

The blue poppy, Bhutan’s national flower, was upgraded to a new species in 2014

Bhutan is also known to be situated within a global biodiversity hotspot. Bhutan is a small Himalayan Kingdom measuring only 150km by 300km across, as the crow flies. However, with elevations ranging from 150m on the Indian border to more than 7000m near Tibet, and relatively untouched due to its mountainous topography, it is teaming with biodiversity. Yet taxonomic work is in its early stages. Only 10,000 species have been described in Bhutan to date, just a fraction of what is yet to be discovered and documented. An average of three new species to science are discovered each year, without too much effort. Citizen science has a huge role to play to help build Bhutan’s taxonomic records.

My volunteer role at the Royal Government of Bhutan’s National Biodiversity Centre was to enhance and promote the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal. The BBP is Bhutan’s equivalent to the Atlas of Living Australia, an online central repository of official information about Bhutan’s biodiversity. Scientists and citizen scientists alike can upload information about biodiversity in Bhutan which is then freely available for sharing, download and analysis. One of the great benefits of the portal is that citizens can upload their photographs of plants and animals and have them identified by other users and confirmed by an expert.

Being new to the world of citizen science, my former colleague, citizen science guru and mentor, Erin Roger, at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, shared three pieces of advice which helped me with my new role:

  • Sell the project, not “citizen science” as people don’t necessarily know what it is.
  • BioBlitzes increase participation in citizen science.
  • Apps, such as QuestGame, are extremely effective at generating biodiversity information.
International Biodiversity Day celebration in Bhutan

As part of my volunteer work, I organised a celebration of International Biodiversity Day in Thimphu. Part of this involved organising a BioBlitz for 200 students from nine high schools in Thimphu. During the BioBlitz, which occurred in an urban park, up to 18 species of plants were documented in a single two by two metre plot. Eight different species of birds were spotted during one 40-minute bird survey, including the rare Black-tailed crake. This species is so seldomly spotted that we did not have a digital image in the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal! Students were encouraged to upload their observations to the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal as part of the BioBlitz.

I also organised online BioBlitzes, encouraging users to upload observations from a particular biodiversity group with prizes for top contributors. For example, we partnered with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and ran an aquatic biodiversity BioBlitz. The BioBlitz generated an impressive 1124 observations compared with 131 observations during the same period in the previous year.

I also worked with QuestaGame coordinating a team from the Royal University of Bhutan to enter the University BioQuest, competing against universities all around the world to submit observations and correctly identify species. I thought this small country with a population of less than one million would be trailing all others for sure, but RUB came second, taking the QuestaGame developers and I by surprise. See the results here. It would seem that the Bhutanese love nature – and their smart phones. Discussions are underway to feed QuestaGame’s data to the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal.

Students participating in a BioBlitz

I have learnt to love citizen science as it is a way to connect people with nature, especially those living in cities who are disconnected from the rhythms of the natural environment. It is a wonderful tool to educate the public about our beautiful biodiversity and the need to protect it. But it is so much more than that. It is a way to generate biodiversity information en masse so that scientists can spend their time doing what they are really good at. For example, Matthew Hall who won the “Spotteron Competition” at #CitSciOz18 for the development of the Brush Turkey app said “Within three days of the launch date the number of reports on the app already outstripped the number of Brush-turkeys I had personally tagged in the whole first year of my PhD”. Queensland Museum arachnid expert Dr Robert Whyte, when referring to a QuestaGame competition said citizen scientists did the grunt work by identifying common spiders, giving experts more time to investigate unusual specimens popping up on the database.

Backtrack prior to our arrival in Bhutan and I would not have even known the species of birds which come through our Sydney backyard, let alone that they have seasonal distribution patterns. I am ashamed to say that I assumed most of the birds were Indian minors, an introduced species, but on closer inspection I am surprised by the diversity. My husband wants to remove a palm tree that has become too huge for our tiny backyard but a couple of months ago I observed a breeding pair of Australasian figbirds feeding on the tiny plump red fruit, so the tree has to stay. I used to call a bird a bird but now I realise each species is so unique and special in its own way. Citizen science has turned me into a bit of a twitcher. And I have returned from Bhutan more passionate than ever before about the multiple benefits of citizen science.

Elysia australis – The Elusive Australian

It was Sunday the 10th of February 2018. The day dawned a great deal cooler that the previous 40⁰C we had been experiencing in Adelaide that week. A small bus load of tired but happy delegates headed out to visit Aldinga Reef, home of one of ReefWatch SA’s longest running citizen science projects, on the final #CitSciOz18 Road Trip.

Approximately 40 minutes later we arrived at Aldinga Beach where we were met with light winds, sunny skies and our citizen scientist hosts; Neville Hudson and Thelma Bridle.

Hard rolled ball of seaweed at Aldinga Beach (pic: Michelle Neil)

After a brief chat we donned our old sneakers or aqua shoes and headed down the long winding raised path to the sand below. Once on the sand we marvelled at the hard rolled balls of seaweed on the beach before venturing out on the shifting sharp rocks of the reef.

On the way out to the ReefWatch SA monitoring site citizen scientist, Stuart Harris from Canberra stopped to take a look into one of the many rock pools. He thought he saw something interesting so grabbed his phone and his new Go Micro 60X microscope and started snapping a few pictures.  Thelma came over to see what Stuart had found and took a few as well for her own records and later verification.

We were all intrigued by this tiny white spotted green sea slug obviously trying to find food but no one was sure what it was. An ID was needed!

What have you found, Stuart? (pic: Michelle Neil)

(You can see the video on our Facebook page.  If you look very carefully you can even see the moment that Stuart spotted the Elysia australis.)

Elysia australis under the 60x (pic: Stuart Harris)

A week went by and I wondered what happed with the identification of that small green sea slug. I asked Stuart for a copy of the photo and sent it through to our ACSA National Coordinator, Amy Slocombe, to see if anyone at the Australian Museum could provide an ID.

A few hours later an email from Neville popped into my inbox:

“I am following up on your visit to our local reef at Aldinga Beach just over a week ago. One of your colleagues located a sea slug we had not found before. He photographed it with a telephoto lens attached to his telephone. Thelma Bridle, local volunteer, also took a photo and subsequently returned a day or so later and again found the slug. It did take her an hour of searching so this fellow is not common. It has been identified as Elysia australis. With this email find two photos; 0458 was taken when you were on the reef the other, 30461, was two days later. I think you will find the photos and the story behind this fellow interesting.”

30461 Pic (Thelma Bridle)

Intrigued I jumped over to the Atlas of Living Australia and typed in Elysia australis. Imagine my surprise to find there was only 7 listed records of the species in Australia – one of which was from one of our ACSA members, Libby Hepburn.  Yet none of those records appeared to be from South Australia!

Some of those 7 Australian records were quite old too:

I excitedly shared my research with Neville and Stuart. If the 2 sightings were uploaded into the Atlas then that would make more of this picture complete. You never know, it could be important!

I hadn’t found out much more about the species by this stage – only that they are found “throughout Australia” which to me seemed a bit vague and didn’t match what I was seeing on the ALA website. Although I did manage to find one page on the defunct Sea Slug Forum which at least had pictures!

Meanwhile I had received an email from Amy, our National Coordinator who had managed, via a colleague Dr Mandy Reid to get an identification. She kindly showed Stuart’s pictures to Dr Richard Willan, Senior Curator of Molluscs, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory who confirmed the sighting:

“According to Dr Wilan, Elysia australis is the commonly used species name for the native Australian sap-sucking sea slug and that it is already likely recorded from South Australia but overlooked because of its habitat (very high tidal rock pools).”

Neville shared my frustration:

“You asked if the Elysia australis is rare. This was something I wasn’t sure about. I had an information sheet Thelma had sent me and my reference books didn’t help me a lot. From the computer I noticed that there have only been 8 Living Atlas records noted. (I hope I have been reading the Living Atlas site correctly.) However, I went to another site; “Sea Slug Forum” and I found the question from Clare Norton 11th Sept 2000 below:

September 11, 2000

From: Clare Norton

I was wondering if you had a photo of Elysia australis? Also, I have heard that this species is found in rockpools around Sydney and Wollongong. If this is correct, I was wondering if you knew of any localities where they are likely to be found? I am interested because I have to do a project for uni about developing an experiment to sample E. australis. I don’t actually have to conduct the experiment but I have searched for them without success and it would greatly help me to design an experiment if I could actually observe some in the field.

Thanks for your time and help,

Clare Norton

Unfortunately the Sea Slug Forum, once affiliated with the Australian Museum no longer accept new posts as it was discontinued in 2010 according to Wikipedia. Both Neville and I were interested to note that the founder, Bill Rudman wrote:

“Since 1998 when the Forum began I see 14,523 messages have been posted. They range from simple identifications to important new biological discoveries. I had hoped the Forum would be an example of how the world wide web could be a vital tool in bringing amateurs and professional scientists together to learn from each other. I give my thanks to those in the Museum who have supported the site, to my professional colleagues worldwide and all those great and enthusiastic amateurs worldwide, who have made my dream a reality. Unfortunately I had thought this would become a permanent site. I will continue to try and resurrect the site as a functioning forum. If so it will have the same address.

Bill Rudman

Was the SeaSlug Forum an early citizen science project from the Australian Museum? It certainly appeared that way!

Since then Stuart has uploaded his sighting to the Atlas of Living Australia bringing the total up to 8 sightings.

Meanwhile I’m left wondering is the Australian Native Sap Sucking Sea Slug, Elysia australis, actually uncommon or just elusive?

0458 Pic (Thelma Bridle)

If sea slugs are your thing, you might want to check out the report from the first Melbourne Sea Slug Census, held 21-22 April 2018.