Take a walk down East Sands. If it’s low tide, chances are that the lower end of the shoreline is inundated with vast mats of seaweed and algae. Seabirds – fulmars, gulls, the occasional tern – circle overhead. A crab skitters underfoot, heading for the shelter of a rocky crevasse.
Although St Andrews is well-renowned for its academic accomplishments and its historical significance, a lesser-known aspect of our town is its ecological side, including the biodiversity that defines it just as much as its human inhabitants do. For the past four years, the annual BioBlitz –a spring-time event in which students, researchers and amateur naturalists of all ages catalogue as many species as possible in 24 hours – has helped to educate people about this wild side of St Andrews. Due to construction on East Sands there will not be a BioBlitz in 2018, but the project’s past success cannot be overstated, both in terms of its scientific accomplishments and its role in raising awareness for local biodiversity. BioBlitzes and events like them can bridge the gap between scientists and the public as events in which anyone can take part.
Until very recently, it was difficult for people to engage in science without spending years gaining the necessary training to become scientists themselves. Science was something conducted by academics only, and research was not widely available in the public domain. This was partly an image problem – scientists were viewed as standoffish, unwilling to communicate their work to lay audiences, instead content with publishing their research in journals that were only read by other experts. But increasing public interest has helped burst this academic bubble, and the relatively new phenomenon of “citizen science” has revolutionised how data is collected in a variety of scientific fields, and perhaps none more than that of biology.
“Citizen science” occurs when the general public is involved in the collection of scientific data. Amateurs have contributed to science for centuries, from the discovery of new stars to the identification of new species of plants and animals. Only recently has there been a concerted effort to harness this public interest and turn it into a force for collecting data at a much larger scale than ever before.
Many notable examples of citizen science come from the study of birds. Coordinated bird counts, such as the Christmas Bird Count, have taken place since the early 20th century and have contributed immensely to our understanding of how birds are distributed throughout the world. During these kinds of events, any birdwatcher can submit their observations of birds they see over the course of several weeks, leading to a global survey of species that would be impossible to achieve using conventional scientific techniques. Although it’s difficult to verify if every bird seen was accurately identified, the sheer number of observations that are submitted allows for a certain amount of error to be forgiven.
In more recent years, the internet has been key in popularising citizen science. There are now countless websites that have sprung up that allow amateurs to submit their wildlife sightings and observations to online databases. This can then be viewed by researchers and the public alike. Online wildlife webcams allow anyone to have a glimpse into the life of a nesting bird, or to watch the everyday drama unfold at a savannah watering hole, all from the comfort of their home. Phone apps with ID guides allow people to identify life around them like never before. Although more people than ever now live in cities, nature has never been more accessible.
Citizen science is not only virtual, though, and community events can be a more personal, hands-on way of getting the general public involved in science. It was in this spirit of public engagement that the first BioBlitz event was organised in Washington D.C. in 1996. Its goal was to engage the public while providing valuable data about biodiversity. Since then, BioBlitzes have been organised in many cities and countries around the world. BioBlitzes are not organised by any specific organisation; instead, local governments, non-governmental organisations, and universities organise them independently. Numerous online resources are available for those wishing to organise one of these events.
Aside from providing unprecedented amounts of vital data for conservation scientists about what species are found where, BioBlitzes are also an opportunity to inspire amateur naturalists, especially those of younger generations, to care more about the natural world that exists in their own neighbourhoods. Nature is often thought of as existing separately to our developed areas, but nothing could be further from the truth. Intensive surveys like BioBlitzes allow people of all ages and walks of life to understand that they don’t need to travel far to experience nature. When seen through the eyes of a naturalist, a backyard can be just as interesting as a rainforest, and can inspire the same sense of adventure.
BioBlitzes and events like it have a special place among universities. In a town like St Andrews, where town-and-gown relations can often be rocky, events like BioBlitz provide an opportunity for locals, students and scientists to work together toward a common goal. This kind of cooperation is a rare and valuable opportunity to improve relations and enhance mutual understanding between all those who call St Andrews home, whether it be for four years or more.
The first St Andrews BioBlitz was organised in 2014 and has occurred every year since, allowing those from the university to communicate their research and, hopefully, inspire the younger generations. As active participation is key, numerous activities take place during the day, including nature walks, rock pooling, diving, and various other survey activities, including those for children of all ages. In the evening, there are bat walks and moth surveys. Student volunteers are a crucial component to the success of these activities, helping things run smoothly, acting as a bridge between the public and the more senior researchers who run the events.
Past years have seen an array of different findings. In 2014, the fi rs year of the event, 519 species were catalogued, the first time in recent history that such a large eff ort was made in St Andrews. The next year saw an even more impressive 636 species logged, including a pod of bottlenose dolphins. The year after that, in 2016, 495 species were recorded. And last year, although hampered by bad weather, those who took part still managed to catalogue a little over 300 species. Rarities in Fife, such as the green silver-lines moth, or the Iberian threeband slug, have helped researchers gain a better understanding about these animals’ ranges and how they may be changing.
Some might be surprised to learn that only a relatively small portion of the animals recorded are large and recognizable birds or mammals. In fact, most of the wildlife catalogued are the smaller, less conspicuous critters that nonetheless have a vital role in the ecosystem. Raising awareness for these less glamorous species is just as important as maintaining awareness for the more popular species.
The survey is not restricted just to animals, either – plants, algae and lichen are all important but overlooked members of the local natural communities that deserve recognition. The BioBlitz can even extend into the lab; there is plenty of microscopic life, such as diatoms or minute insects, that exists beyond the reach of the naked eye.
When all is said and done, the most rewarding aspect of contributing in citizen science is being able to see the data that was collected being used to make the town a better place. The results of the event are published each year in a report, are available online, and can be accessed by local government and others in order to account for conservation during planning and policy-making.
Unfortunately, due to the construction of the new Gatty Marine Lab – which in the past served as a hub for the day’s events – BioBlitz 2018 will not be going forward, although it will resume in 2019. Until then, aspiring naturalists will have to look elsewhere to get their fix of citizen science.
Fortunately, they won’t have to look far: there are plenty of volunteering opportunities in St Andrews, Edinburgh and beyond. BioBlitzes and events like them are held regularly in cities across the globe, so there is sure to be something for everyone.