Amateur ecology

Over the last few years I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading about wildlife, as well as going on courses. One of the biggest surprises I’ve had is there’s so much we don’t know, even about some of our most familiar species. For example, we don’t really know what water voles do all winter, or where basking sharks go. Linked to the realisation of how much we don’t know about our wildlife, is the discovery that normal people, like you and me, can make a meaningful contribution to scientific research about wildlife.

The other day I read, in Hugh Warwick’s book The Beauty in the Beast, about Denis Summers-Smith. It was inspirational. Denis is a mechanical engineer and an amateur birdwatcher, who has written five books and over forty scientific papers on the house sparrow. He has discovered many things about house sparrows, including that they mate for life. And all this has been done in his spare time…

For those of us not quite ready to write a book based on our own discoveries, there are many citizen science projects that rely on the contributions of hundreds (or thousands) of volunteers to gather data from across the country. The commitment and expertise involved varies considerably.

For example, each year in January the RSPB run the Big Garden Birdwatch. Almost 590,000 people took part in it in 2013. This involves spending an hour counting the different types of birds that come into your garden on a specific weekend. From this, they can analyse the data from across the country, and spot any significant changes in the bird population. This is important to inform conservation work.

Many other organisations run similar surveys. This BBC Nature article contains a good list.

At the other end of the spectrum, the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme is rather more indepth, requiring trained and licensed volunteers to carry out box checks each month (except over winter). The data collected from this programme is providing new insights into these lovely creatures. At a dormouse conference I attended a couple of years ago, it was very exciting to hear scientific presentations based on data that I helped (in a very small way) to collect. We now know much more about this species than we did before the programme started.

Like many girls of my generation, I gave up studying science after I finished my GCSEs, despite getting my best grades in science and maths. I didn’t think science was for me. I didn’t realise how exciting science could be, and the range of things it could involve. It has been thrilling to learn, somewhat belatedly, that science is for me, and I can contribute to finding answers to questions about our native wildlife. These answers may help us better protect our beautiful and vulnerable creatures, for this generation and those to come.

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