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Citizen Scientist

Be part of a TCI science revolution.

By Edward Hind and Katharine Hart

The natural world in the Turks & Caicos changes daily. Birds of all shapes and sizes continually arrive to and leave our shores on their long migrations. Waters inundate and then leave mangrove forests as the tide rises and falls. Humpback whales pass along our coasts at the same time as sharks, rays, snappers, and groupers move around coral reefs in search of food. It’s a world that is “Beautiful by Nature.”

In a country where so many of our careers or vacations rely on nature, it is essential that we appreciate these daily changes. If we no longer understand how our environment is changing we may start to find our jobs at risk and our leisure activities unsatisfying. We, therefore, have a problem.

It has traditionally been the role of professional scientists to understand such changes in nature, but in a country with over 300 sq. km. of land mass and a vast 155,000 sq. km. of ocean, we need an army of scientists to try to understand the fluctuations in our environment. Currently, only 10 to 20 professional scientists work in the TCI. Fortunately, we have an answer to our problem and that answer is you! Whether you were born here, reside here, or are just visiting, you can become a citizen scientist, part of an intellectual movement more powerful than any military army. As part of the movement you will be able to help describe the TCI’s wonderful natural environment more completely than previously possible.

Citizen scientists hold the world in their hands.

Citizen scientists hold the world in their hands.

Citizen science is a growing movement where anybody, regardless of age, nationality, or background, can take part in real-world research projects designed by professional scientists. The participation of citizens greatly magnifies the ability of scientists to conduct the research that is necessary to understand and then preserve the natural world. Better still, participant feedback from around the world is starting to show that taking part in citizen science is something that is greatly enjoyable. Many people who originally enrolled in just one citizen science project to “see what it was like” are now collecting impactful data for more than 10 projects. They are doing citizen science on weekends, after work, and when on vacation.

If you can find the time to become a citizen scientist, not only will you be promoting conservation in the Turks & Caicos Islands, you will also be enjoying this amazing country from a whole new perspective. So please do sign up for one of the following projects and be a part of a national and global scientific revolution. For most of these projects all you will need is enthusiasm and a smart phone or tablet.

eBird (www.ebird.org/content/caribbean) — This is probably the world’s most popular citizen science project and already has a strong presence in the TCI. We’re lucky to have a huge diversity of wetlands, scrub, and forest on our doorstep that are home to at least 150 species of birds. We also have a number of oceanic birds that can only be seen whilst you are at sea or visiting small cays. There are good bird ID guides on sale at bookshops on Providenciales and at the museum in Grand Turk. All you need are one of these and a set of binoculars and you are good to go. Take a long walk through one of the many national parks, visit the golf course ponds, or observe from the deck of your yacht. Once you have entered your observations online you can generate maps of your own bird sightings as well as of other TCI birders. It is highly addictive! The only note of caution is to be careful of nesting birds, especially on remote cays that you may need a permit to set foot on. Nesting birds can be easily disturbed and may abandon their nest if the disturbance is too much for them.

Flukebook (www.flukebook.org) — Facebook for whales! Across the TCI and especially off Salt Cay we are lucky to be able to witness the annual migrations of humpback whales that come to the Caribbean to give birth. If you are on a whale watching tour, all you need to do is take a picture of a whale’s tail (its fluke) and then upload it to this site, just as you would for your vacation pictures on the similarly named social media platform. Once you’ve uploaded your fluke picture you will be able to learn more about the whale you have spotted, perhaps even finding out that it winters with you in the USA or Canada.

World Water Monitoring Challenge (www.worldwatermonitoringday.org) — Clean water is absolutely vital for the seagrass beds, mangrove forests, and coral reefs of the TCI. You can contribute to this annual program to ensure water in the TCI stays clean by monitoring your local bay, salt pond, or lake. You will need to pre-order a simple water testing kit from the project’s website. Monitoring can be conducted anytime between March 22 and December 31 each year.

iSeahorse (www.iSeahorse.org) — Is there anything more satisfying than spotting a tiny seahorse on a dive or a snorkel through the seagrass or mangroves? Yes — seeing that seahorse and then sharing it with the world. Record your observation for the scientists at Project Seahorse so they can act to protect these often endangered marine animals.

Turks and Caicos Eagle Ray Project (www.fieldstudies.org/eagle-ray-project) — One of the most amazing sights on a dive in the TCI is one of these patterned rays. You can now help scientists track their majestic movements by submitting your pictures to this website run by South Caicos’ School for Field Studies. Each eagle ray has a unique “fingerprint” in the form of its spot pattern, so if your ray turns up again it can be easily identified. More information on this project can be found in the Fall 2014 Times of the Islands on page 26, “Swim Like an Eagle.”

Marine Debris Tracker (http://www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu/) — Have you ever had your walk along one of TCI’s more remote beaches spoiled by a pile of washed-up trash? Now is your chance to do something about it. By reporting the types of trash that you are finding, scientists will be able to locate its origin and put pressure on policymakers at its source to introduce better environmental legislation.

Secchi App (http://www.secchidisk.org) — This is a great project for those passing through TCI waters on a sailboat, and all you will need is a smart phone and your own homemade secchi disk. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a secchi disk is, as the project’s online tutorial will let you know how to easily make one, as well as let you know what it is for. Once you have made your secchi disk you will be able to lower it into the water and report readings to scientists. They will use these readings to determine the changing levels of crucial microscopic organisms in the world’s oceans.

eShark (www.eshark.org) — Why wouldn’t there be a citizen science project directed toward documenting the presence of the ocean’s most impressive animals? Submit all your shark sightings from every dive and snorkel here.

Beyond these web-based projects you can also get involved in local community science projects across the TCI. The Department of the Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) is currently working on a number of Citizen Science projects to be launched over the upcoming months. DEMA knows that developing projects which involve members of the TCI community, from enthusiastic schoolchildren to grandparents who want to reconnect with nature, means that more areas can be monitored, more data can be collected, and that local residents can become more engaged with their environment in the process.

DEMA’s coral reef monitoring program is the first citizen science program to be up-and-running in both Grand Turk and Providenciales (see story on next page). It is a collaboration with the US-based Reef Check Foundation to collect information on coral reefs throughout the TCI. Further projects include Seagrass-Watch to monitor seagrass ecosystems, mangrove monitoring, and a program to engage recreational divers in collecting data on different species and features they see during dives.

For more information about how to get involved please contact Katharine Hart, DEMA Environmental Officer, Grand Turk, at KatharineAHart@gmail.com.

Edward Hind is Lecturer in Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values at the School for Field Studies’ Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos. Reach out to him on Twitter @edd_hind Katharine Hart is an Environmental Officer with DEMA based on Grand Turk.



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