Can social networking save the world’s amphibians?



Any adventurer, hiker or backyard naturalist with a camera can help scientists survey and hopefully save the world’s amphibians thanks to a new social networking site that links “citizen scientists” with researchers tracking the decline of amphibians around the globe.

The Global Amphibian Blitz is a new partnership between the University of California, Berkeley’s AmphibiaWeb, a comprehensive database of the world’s nearly 7,000 amphibians; Amphibian Ark; the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute; the Amphibian Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission, which is part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; the Center for Biological Diversity; and, a Bay Area social network for naturalists.

The website allows amateur naturalists from around the world to submit their amphibian photographs along with dates and GPS locations. The project is curated by a team of scientists who will identify and filter the submissions in search of rare species or out-of-range occurrences of interest to the scientific and conservation communities.

“The distributions of many amphibian species are so poorly known that every observation helps,” said herpetologist Michelle Koo, a UC Berkeley research scientist who helps manage AmphibiaWeb, which is hosted by the campus’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “Museums can’t be everywhere we need to be at once to get the data sets we need. Using social networks to partner with amateurs is a powerful new tool for scaling biodiversity data for science and conservation.”

Amphibians around the world are disappearing at a rapid rate, said iNaturalist co-director Scott Loarie, who is a post-doctoral fellow in the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. Recent estimates suggest that nearly one-third of all amphibians – some 2,000 species – are threatened with extinction. In the last two decades alone, nearly 168 species are thought to have gone extinct.

With increasing land use and climate change around the world, these trends are likely to worsen, Loarie said. To better understand and conserve these diverse and fascinating creatures, museums are looking for new ways to efficiently collect large quantities of information on where amphibians persist.

In the past, however, the usefulness of citizen science projects such as eBird has been questioned because of the difficulty in validating amateur data, such as bird species identification.

The new project’s emphasis on photographs and scientifically verified identifications changes this, Loarie said.

“The collaboration between the amateur and scientific communities is what makes this project unique and exciting,’ he said. ‘We’re not asking amateur naturalists to provide expert identifications – that’s for the scientific community to do. But by being in the right place at the right time and armed with a camera, amateurs can provide information that scientists could never dream of collecting on their own.’

iNaturalist, the social networking site that will link amateurs and scientists, began as a master’s project by Ken-ichi Ueda and two other students at UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2008 and has continued to grow, with Ueda and Loarie as co-directors. Last month, Save the Redwoods League partnered with iNaturalist to distribute an iPhone app that will help the group track the migration of redwood trees in California and Oregon.

“This is a social networking site for naturalists and a way to pool and share observations about the natural world for a common cause,” Ueda said. “Anyone can start a project, whether it’s counting crows nesting in San Francisco or amphibians around the world, or even keeping track of raccoons eating garbage in your neighborhood.”

Global Amphibian Blitz, the first partnership between iNaturalist and a museum, hopes eventually to census every one of the world’s surviving amphibian species, which AmphibiaWeb counts this week as 6,813.

“We’re not sure how many species we might tally in the first few months or even after the first year,” said Vance Vredenburg, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University who helped start AmphibiaWeb while a student at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “But exploring this kind of crowd-sourcing of biodiversity data is a critical step towards using our scarce conservation money wisely.”

And what about sharing sensitive data with commercial collectors and others who would exploit this information? When the project learns the public locations of rare and endangered amphibians, the exact whereabouts are obscured to all but the scientific community.

‘Up until now, many of these amphibians have been going extinct completely under the radar screen, with no one watching at all,’ said Koo. ‘We’ve taken a lot of care to protect sensitive information, and we have an opportunity to recruit thousands to help us keep an eye on these animals so we can ensure they persist through the 21st century.’

[youtube -ZOt-G3xG6Yg]