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Nature website tracks wildlife sightings for research

Have you seen this moose? Dr. Yolanda Wiersma wants to know.

By Kelly Foss

Have you spotted a bear recently, or perhaps a coyote, moose, whale, caribou or birds? Perhaps some other kind of interesting plant or animal? Maybe you know where a patch of rare Boreal Felt Lichen can be found. If so, Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, an assistant professor of Biology, would love to hear from you.

The landscape ecologist and conservation biologist has joined a Canada-wide project aimed at bringing together the public, internet technology and geographical information to support research on environmental issues.

Her new website,, asks users to log sightings of wildlife and species at risk as Newfoundland’s contribution to a larger Geomatics for Informed Decisions (GEOIDE) funded project led by Dr. Renee Sieber of McGill.
“Essentially, Dr. Sieber is interested in how the public interacts with internet and geographic technology, particularly Web 2.0 which includes social networking sites, YouTube and other web based forms for sharing user-generated content with the world,” explained Dr. Wiersma. “In this case, the public are citizen sensors. They’re sensing the environment just like instruments you might put out in the environment as a researcher, except they’re real bodies, often with local knowledge, and they’re sharing information with each other and the research team.”

Dr. Wiersma’s website will be used to collect data about how the public uses such sites for Dr. Sieber’s study including uptake rates, the critical mass of people needed to make such a site viable, and information on the kind of people who would participate in such a website. It will also aid in Dr. Wiersma’s own research.

“I’m a landscape ecologist so I use map-based technologies, but I’m not a geographer,” she said. “However, I have a student studying this globally rare lichen and we know a little bit about its distribution. His thesis is actually about predicting its distribution across the whole island – places it might occur that we haven’t looked yet.

“There are only three pockets on the island that we’re aware of, but we’ve been using habitat association to predict other places where there may be a likelihood of finding it, but where no one has looked,” she added. “With this website, we can actually have people post photos and coordinates of locations either with their own GPS unit, or by using the Google map embedded in the website. This way, we may be able to prove that our predictions were correct before actually going out into the field.”

Realizing lichen sightings probably wouldn’t generate high traffic to her site, Dr. Wiersma added other species.

“I have another student working on coyotes and they are exciting and controversial at the moment. In addition, outfitters were concerned that caribou numbers were declining so they became an area of interest. The other species are interesting from a tourism perspective and tracking them could be important for visitors to the province. It will be interesting to see from an ecological and social science perspective which of these species ends having the most traffic on the website a year from now.”

While the provincial Department of the Environment’s Wildlife Division is a partner in the project, Dr. Wiersma says the data will not be owned by the organization.

“When we contacted them, they were very excited about the website,” she said. “They’ve been interested in this kind of web-based public participation in the past.”

Because the information is not being collected systematically, the data could never be used in any robust scientific analysis, but it could be useful to see if data from the website could identify areas where there was something interesting happening.”

If there are enough data points Dr. Wiersma may be able to detect trends in parts of the province, where she can then go do systematic surveys and in-depth research.

“If that happens, we’ll also have contact information for local people who have knowledge and are interested based on their contributions to the web site,” she said. “Of course the success of the whole project will depend on traffic volume, so the most important thing is to get people to visit and use the site.”

Any member of the public is invited to join in at Setting up an account takes only a few minutes, but people can also contribute observations without an account.