Tag Archives: Citizen science

Importance of amateurs in improving our understanding of dormice

It’s not often that my day job links, even tangentially, with my enthusiasm for wildlife (see this post on the badger cull for a rare exception to this). But I spent the other morning teaching undergraduates the importance of involving patients and the public in clinical trials. As we discussed the different sorts of impact this involvement can have, it reminded me of a recent talk I heard about dormice by Pat Morris.

OK, the link isn’t obvious, but bear with me. Pat Morris is one of the country’s leading experts on dormice. His talk wasn’t so much about the natural history of dormice, as the (surprisingly short) history of the study of hazel dormice. What really struck me was the importance of amateurs in that history.

When Pat turned his attention to hazel dormice (having decided to move on from hedgehogs) very little was known about them. By the early 1980s there were only three scientific papers on hazel dormice. This dearth of knowledge was because they are so difficult to study. They don’t go into traps like other small mammals. And being nocturnal arboreal mammals, you won’t see any if you go out looking for them. So how, apart from chance encounters, could scientists study them?

It was amateur wildlife enthusiasts that discovered two of the key ways that we now use to search for or monitor dormice populations.

  1. nibbled nuts: as the name suggests, Hazel dormice are partial to
    Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
    Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.

    hazel nuts. A sharp-eyed amateur noticed that it’s possible to distinguish between a nutshell that’s been opened by a dormouse and one opened by other small mammals (see How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts). If you can find a nutshell that’s been nibbled by a dormouse, you know there must be dormice present in your wood, even if no-one ever sets eyes on one.

  2. dormouse boxes: Doug Woods, a keen
    A newly installed dormouse box (Chateau Dormouse, as the child who helped make it called it)
    A newly installed dormouse box (Chateau Dormouse, as the child who helped make it called it)

    birder who monitored woodland bird breeding noticed that dormice would sometimes build nests in bird boxes. By adapting bird boxes to discourage birds and encourage dormice (putting the entrance hole at the back of the box, next to the trunk), he developed a monitoring tool that allows us to see and measure dormice.

 

The amateur contribution to the study of dormice didn’t stop at discovering the research tools. Hundreds of volunteers have helped to collect data about dormice using these tools.

The Great Nut Hunt of 1993 was a pivotal moment in the study of dormice in the UK. Volunteers across the country got on their hands and knees in woodlands, searching for dormouse nibbled nuts. They found 300,000 nuts, which showed that during the 20th century dormice had disappeared from half their range (based on where historical observations had been recorded).

The important contribution of amateurs continues to this day. Many of the people who volunteer to check dormouse boxes each month for the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme are, like me, amateur enthusiasts. The programme now has around 400 sites, and dormice are the only terrestrial mammal being monitored nationally every year in the UK.

This talk encouraged me – even as a volunteer giving a few hours each month, I can help to increase our knowledge about our native wildlife, which will hopefully mean we can get better at protecting it. At work I have seen some striking examples of people who aren’t medical professionals or scientists making vital contributions to our research. It seems to be the same in conservation. We ignore the insight of people with a passion at our peril.

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.