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Collective flights

Interaction between academic researchers and birdwatchers enhances scientific production

Ruby-crowned Tanager

Luciano Lima / Butantan CollectionRuby-crowned TanagerLuciano Lima / Butantan Collection

Collaborative efforts between academic and non-academic researchers studying the geographic distribution of birds in Brazil have yielded fruitful results. Through WikiAves, a database that holds records of nearly every known Brazilian species and features 1.6 million photos taken by 24,000 users, biologists at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) have confirmed that five species of birds of the genus Drymophila, known as antbirds, have gained terrain in the coastal Atlantic Forest. According to records contributed by birdwatchers, one such species, D. squamata, now inhabits an area 283,000 square kilometers larger than had been documented earlier by the PUC team based on museum consultations and scientific papers published over the past 100 years.

“Birdwatchers can be a great help to scientific research, because they make records of species or behaviors in places that are seldom or never frequented by university-affiliated researchers,” says biologist Henrique Rajão, who headed the surveys of Drymophila. He and biologist Erica Santos are now writing a scientific paper on the expanding area occupied by birds of that genus, which measure 14 centimeters in length at most and may have red or reddish-yellow plumage, depending on the species.

Blue Dacnis

Luciano Lima / Butantan CollectionBlue DacnisLuciano Lima / Butantan Collection

Rajão has been interacting with birdwatchers not affiliated with academic institutions since February 2002, when the president of the Friends of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden asked him if he could guide a group of visitors on a bird walk, because one of the association’s members had donated 12 sets of binoculars and no one knew how to use them properly. Rajão, feeling demeaned, asserted that he was a scientist, not a guide. At the time he was working on his PhD in bird genetics. Reluctantly, however, he accepted the invitation and observed the delight exhibited by the group of about 20 Rio residents on their first sighting of a toucan, a Violet-capped Woodnymph or a woodpecker as they walked through the Botanical Garden’s 137 hectares of woods adjacent to the Tijuca Forest. Rajão so thoroughly enjoyed the experience that he has led the subsequent walks—held on the last Saturday of each month—continuously for the past 14 years. Inspired by this experience, biologists at the Butantan Institute created the Bird Observatory and have organized monthly walks since 2014, leading dozens of people who are likewise fascinated by woodpeckers, caracaras, thrushes, warblers and other birds in the Institute’s 60-hectare forest. In addition to offering educational and science communication activities, the Observatory is currently carrying out long-term monitoring of populations of wild species and conducting research on ecology, natural history and epidemiological surveillance, by collecting and analyzing microorganisms found in birds.

On the morning of May 22, 2016, the last day of Avistar—the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival held at the Butantan Institute—Rajão expressed his admiration for the work of non-academic experts in the presentation of scientific articles written by physician Roberto Stenzell and dentist Pythagoras Souza, on subjects such as the reproductive habits of the Black-cheeked Gnateater (Conopophaga melanops), which ornithologists had not yet described. Although this is not generally the case, non-academic researchers are earning the respect of academics in other areas as well, as did Elton Leme, an appellate judge who became an expert in bromeliads and writes scientific articles alongside professional botanists (see article).

“We need more collaborators,” biologist Pedro Develey, executive director of the non-governmental organization SAVE/BirdLife, said several times during Avistar. “Ornithologists will not be able to map the biodiversity of Brazil all on their own.” Ten years earlier, on his office computer, Develey had once again anxiously observed an animated map showing the movements of 118 species of migratory birds from North to South America. The map was produced at Cornell University in the United States, based on millions of records obtained between 2002 and 2011. It was published in January 2016 on the website of that institution’s ornithology laboratory. On the map, the Brazilian territory is shown as practically empty, with no records of plovers, American Oystercatchers, sandpipers, stilts, Hudsonian Curlews, snipes, Wilson’s Phalaropes or other migratory bird species that pass through Brazil.

Urban birds: a walk in the forest at the Butantan Institute

Eduardo CesarUrban birds: a walk in the forest at the Butantan InstituteEduardo Cesar

The current priority is the sandpipers, a group of birds 15 centimeters in length and weighing 100 to 200 grams, of which five species are endangered. Every year, thousands of individuals of this group reproduce in the Arctic or Canada. When winter comes, they leave on a 6,000-kilometer trip southward, stopping to rest and feed mainly along the coast of the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Bahia, Sergipe and Rio Grande do Sul. They then continue on to Argentina, remaining there until early winter when they fly back North. According to Juliana de Almeida, project manager at SAVE/BirdLife, as a result of the loss of terrain where the birds can rest and feed in Brazil and other countries, one species of the group—the Red Knot (Calidris canutus)—has been classified as endangered.

“Everyone can take part in the process of understanding what is happening to the birds of the world,” notes John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There are about 50 million birdwatchers in the United States. “We’re an army,” says Fitzpatrick. Since 1997, the Cornell group has published more than 50 scientific papers based on records made by non-academic birdwatchers—a form of collaboration that is gaining momentum in that country. In January 2016, the federal government recognized the value of non-academic collaborators and distributed a set of guidelines for government agencies to better employ citizen participation as part of their innovation strategy. An April 2016 announcement by the American Geophysical Union encourages citizen participation. “Witness a landslide, feel an earthquake or observe the first buds of spring? Take out your cell phone and report a data point.”

In a similar experience in 2015, researchers from the states of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, used “Wanted” posters to launch a campaign to find an invasive bee species, the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), that had already spread throughout Argentina and was advancing towards Uruguay. Their arrival, probably through southern Brazil, could be detrimental to agriculture and native bee species. Within a year and a half of the campaign launch, biologist André Luis Acosta, a researcher at the Research Center on Biodiversity and Computing, University of São Paulo (USP), received nearly 100 photos of potential sightings of the bee in question, but none were of the species being sought. “As the campaign continues,” he says, “at any time we could identify the moment of their arrival into the country and take the steps needed to reduce their impact on agriculture.” This method has been used on other occasions. In the early 20th century, Vital Brazil, a physician and first director of the Butantan Institute, encouraged residents of farms in rural São Paulo State to send snakes they had found to the Institute, appropriately packaged in boxes he sent via Northwestern Railway trains, in exchange for antidotal serum, free of charge and also sent by train.

The buff-tailed bumblebee: probable entry through southern Brazil

André Luis Acosta / USP The buff-tailed bumblebee: probable entry through southern BrazilAndré Luis Acosta / USP

WikiAves and eBird
The 40,000 non-academic birdwatchers and some 500 ornithologists affiliated with formal academic research institutions can record information on the species they see anywhere in Brazil, using two databases. The first is WikiAves, created in 2008 and maintained by systems analyst and birdwatcher Reinaldo Guedes. Nationwide in scope, WikiAves contains records of 1,860 of the 1,916 known Brazilian species. The second database, eBird, was created at Cornell University and features worldwide coverage. The Portuguese version, created and maintained in partnership with the Butantan Bird Observatory, PUC-Rio and SAVE Brasil, has been in operation since 2015 and has some 1,200 users in Brazil, far fewer than the 24,000 who participate in the other database.

Both databases are open to any interested party, manage data that measure the biological wealth of each location, are tended by volunteer monitors, and can be accessed and manipulated from a cell phone. While WikiAves focuses on the photos and their authors, eBird emphasizes the number of specimens of each species observed, which enables researchers to calculate size variations in bird populations and study migrations through the Americas.

Ornithologists recognize the quality of data and the importance of databases built by non-academics, but they are concerned about a feature of WikiAves that limits academic studies: the database lists only the municipalities—which in the North are immense in size—rather than the exact location of each data point. In addition, birdwatchers do not always record data with the rigor and precision desired by ornithologists from formal research institutions. To ensure data quality, in an editorial paper in the June 2016 issue of Conservation Biology, biologists from the United States and Canada have proposed stepped-up interaction and training for citizen scientists with regard to data-gathering.

Blue-eyed Ground Dove: rediscovered after 75 years

Wagner NogueiraBlue-eyed Ground Dove: rediscovered after 75 yearsWagner Nogueira

“Any errors tend to disappear amidst the volume of information,” says Mario Cohn-Haft, an ornithologist at the National Institute for Research on the Amazon (INPA) in the city of Manaus. “There are also collective errors—such as those involving species identification—that can proliferate, but they can be traced and corrected.” At Avistar, Cohn-Haft focused attention on birdwatchers as he presented the initial findings of a scientific expedition he had led to the Mocidade mountain range in the state of Roraima—in the form of short films and recordings of birdsong. The trip took place in January and February 2016 with about 70 participants, and resulted in the identification of 40 possible new animal and plant species. A documentary on the subject is expected to be released in the second half of 2016.

It was also at Avistar that biologist Rafael Bessa announced the rediscovery of the Blue-eyed Ground Dove (Columbina cyanopis), first discovered in 1823. This species, with blue eyes, a brown head, copper-colored breast and blue-spotted brown and greenish wings, was last seen in 1941 in the Cerrado savannah of southern Goiás State, and Bessa found it again in July 2015 in inland Minas Gerais State. He posted a photo of the bird on WikiAves but did not reveal its exact location, so as to prevent an influx of birdwatchers or hunters until a conservation plan could be implemented for a specific 400-acre section of the Cerrado where 12 specimens of the species have been seen since 2015.

Scientific article
LUKYANENKO, R. et al. Emerging problems of data quality in citizen science. Conservation Biology, V. 30, No. 3, p. 447–9, 2016.