Citizen science, range maps, and conservation

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Effective conservation begins with a keen understanding of where species live and what environmental conditions they need to survive. Using new modeling techniques fueled by citizen science, Vijay Ramesh and colleagues have developed a data-driven method to accurately map where species live so that these areas, and the species within them, can be protected.  

Recently, they applied their technique – which incorporates information on climate, land cover, and recorded citizen sightings – to an analysis of 18 bird species in the Western Ghats, a mountainous biodiversity hotspot in southern India that is threatened by widespread development. They found that 17 of the 18 species were under-protected and inhabited ranges significantly smaller than those identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

IUCN range maps are frequently used when setting international conservation goals. These maps, produced by BirdLife International, are often hand-drawn, based on expert sightings and historical records. Ramesh’s findings reveal weaknesses in this method, which tends to inflate ranges by including unsuitable habitat. 

eBird, the international online birding checklist app, was at the heart of the improved range maps. In the Western Ghats, over a million citizen scientists have been using eBird to document their bird encounters. This dataset, verified by eBird regional reviewers, provides invaluable information about where birds actually live.

These findings highlight the critical importance of adopting methods to map species occurrence that use all available data – including observations from citizen scientists –  to ensure species’ survival. 

Ramesh, who led this study while working as a spatial and computational ecologist at the Cary Institute, is currently pursuing his PhD at Columbia University.

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