How world’s tour operators are helping citizen scientists do vital research

From the Arctic and Antarctica to southern Africa, travel companies are fostering efforts by their clients to contribute data for studies of the environment and wildlife populations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 12:06pm

Amateurs have been playing growing roles in research projects as the notion of citizen science spreads and data-gathering becomes more sophisticated.

Scientists have roped in diving enthusiasts in the US to monitor star fish die-offs and upload the information to databases; even tribespeople in Botswana and Namibia have used an app to record observations of wildlife behaviour.

SEE ALSO: Hong Kong citizen scientists help Antarctic climate change fight

In 2014, scientists from Oxford University and the Australian Antarctic Division started a project called Penguin Watch, giving volunteers access to images from their 50 automated cameras installed across the South Pole.

SEE ALSO: What a trip to Antarctica teaches sleep-deprived Hong Kong about need for rest

The idea is that citizen scientists can help them gauge bird numbers (evidence suggests that some species are in decline), and extract details about such things as how penguin families develop, track the condition of various colonies and how they weather the Antarctic winter.

WATCH: BBC TV presenter and Earthwatch ambassador Paul Rose discusses with scientists Dr William Megill and Dr Chris Newman how citizen science can make a difference in the field of environmental research



As climate change threatens life in the ice caps, travel companies operating polar cruises are embracing the concept and recruiting guests as research assistants.

Last summer, staff with Poseidon Expeditions made a foray into citizen science, inviting passengers on cruises to the Arctic to sign up for assignments to measure the temperature and salinity of melt ponds on the ice cap. The data is being used by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States to make more accurate predictions of how quickly the sea ice is melting.

At tour operator Ecology Safaris, which makes several trips to the Antarctic peninsula annually, Ted Cheeseman runs a programme recruiting whale-watching visitors to contribute their digital photographs of the marine mammals. The pooled images form a useful resource as photo identification (especially from tail markings) remains the primary way to gauge whale numbers.

Although most polar tours feature educational components in the form of talks by knowledgeable staff, Cheeseman believes engaging tourists in studies of the sensitive ecosystem they are visiting greatly enhances the experience.

Some scientists disparage the role of amateurs, but reports such as a paper published in the journal PLOS One in November show the importance of citizen science in scientific discovery. Some of the theory and methods developed to support such research “highlights the breadth and depth of the citizen science approach and encourages cross-fertilisation between the different disciplines”, write Ria Follett and Vladimir Strezov.