The next time you walk across campus, take a moment to stop or slow down and observe the many creatures that call the vast western country their home. And while you’re at it, take a picture.
It is a campus-wide, year-long crowdsourcing initiative led by Western’s biology department that encourages the campus community to submit images and observations of wildlife they may encounter on campus—from bees to birds and everything in between. The goal is to build one biodiversity inventory on the campus of Western and its affiliated University Colleges Brescia, Huron and King’s.
The ultimate goal is to raise awareness about the conservation and nurturing of biodiversity on campus, said Brendon Samuels, a graduate student in the biology department.
“There’s quite an appetite for it in Westerns these days,” said Samuels, an outspoken environmentalist whose past active lobbying has drawn attention to the dangers of birds crashing into glass windows on campus and throughout London, Ontario. “In the past there have been a number of initiatives aimed at collecting data on campus. And these projects are done on a case-by-case basis and casually, and then they don’t merge into something bigger or anything as useful.”
Gathering all of this siled information and putting it into a single, comprehensive database where people can continue to add to it will result in a more meaningful biodiversity inventory, Samuels said.
No plant is too small and no beetle is too big in this all-encompassing community science project where everyone is welcome. If it’s alive and breathing and living on campus, it goes into the database. The Biodiversity Inventory Campaign welcomes all submissions from the campus community – using the iNaturalist App – and they can come in different forms: photos, audio recordings, written observations or all together.
A day to a year
When Samuels approached biology professor Timothy Hain with the idea of creating a biodiversity inventory on campus, he immediately jumped on it.
“I thought this would be something to get my wildlife ecology students interested in,” Hain said. “As an instructor who has had many students in my classes, I am also interested in engaging other classes and some of the clubs on campus. I would like to give (students) opportunities to build skills, stimulate their interests and prepare them for later careers.”
Samuels and Hain also acknowledged the help of Peter Baker, also a graduate student in the Biology Department, in organizing the initiative.
Hain said the original plan was to conduct a one-day “bioblitz” for the biodiversity inventory. A bioblitz is an event involving a group of people – or citizen scientists – focused on identifying as many wildlife species as possible over a given period of time and in a given area.
But the nature of things, and of course COVID-19, presented a less than ideal scenario for compiling a meaningful biodiversity inventory over a short period of time.
“COVID restrictions limited how many large groups we could have,” Hain said. “Also, we wanted to know how diversity changes throughout the year and we thought it would be better to make it a year-long project.”
There’s also a higher chance of spotting more diverse and active species in spring and summer, he added.
The extension of the project will also allow more people to get involved and contribute to the inventory at any time during the year, Samuels said.
“If we develop a framework for how we can collect the data and be out and about in nature, there’s no reason why we can’t be inclusive, so it’s not just ourselves as organizers, but clubs, committees, courses teach before location, as well as the affiliated campuses that may wish to be included in the inventory,” he said.
Samuels and Hain recognized the support of other Western faculties and units during the planning and development of the biodiversity inventory project, including the Faculty of Science, Facilities Management and Sustainability Office, as well as affiliates Huron, Brescia and King’s.
“It’s exciting to have partners from across the university. The Sustainability Office has really supported this project and been a good advocate,” added Hain.
The idea for the biodiversity inventory project is to help any member of the campus community who is interested in participating to become a wildlife ecologist themselves.
“It really is as simple as taking a picture with your phone or camera,” says Samuels. “If you don’t want to take a picture and you hear a bird outside, you can record the audio.”
The group created the Biodiversity Inventory at Western project in the iNaturalist app, and Samuels suggests this is the easiest way to add data to inventory. The app, jointly developed by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences, automatically identifies the species that users track and share with the app, and provides information about those species. It also provides an opportunity for the iNaturalist community to discuss the observations and even confirm the information about the species.
As with any interaction with wildlife, Samuels and Hain said people should exercise caution when conducting their observation to ensure the safety of both the observer and the species.
“There is absolutely no touch. If you see a plant or animal or mushroom, take photos of it, but don’t touch it with your hands. There are a number of organisms on campus that are actually toxic to humans. And we also want to respect wildlife,” said Samuels.
He also suggested that when people post about sensitive or endangered animals like an owl, they disguise the location where they found it or wait a few days or weeks to reveal the location to ensure the animal has departed and avoid disturbing their natural ecosystem.
Another precaution: do not get too close to nesting wildlife as this will cause stress.
Keeping your distance is also the best way to take an animal photo, Hain said.
“The most interesting animal photo is one that shows the animal or plant doing the most natural things, and the way you achieve that is by keeping your distance and drawing the animal’s attention not to you, but to itself actually behaving like that would be natural. So I encourage people to keep their distance and enjoy the animals safely.”
Hain is excited to see what comes after the biodiversity inventory project and how students can learn from it.
“I’m excited that students are starting to organize this data in a systematic way and maybe do a time series analysis to see how things are changing over the year or over the years. I hope this is a project that can continue for many years,” he said.