Crowdsourcing nature observations to study ecological interactions

Members of the public have been using iSpot, the social network for natural history, to record their observations of ecological interactions. So far, the project has identified interactions among over three thousand species in the UK, Ireland and South Africa. The observations are promoting a greater public awareness of biodiversity while also providing crucial data for ecological research. Professor Jonathan Silvertown highlighted the value of iSpot’s resources at the joint BES/SFE conference in Lille.

iSpot is the Open University’s online, social forum that encourages people to explore and engage with nature. As Professor Silvertown explained, “anyone can sign up to iSpot for free, upload photos of what they have seen via the website or Android app and get help identifying it”.

As part of their centenary celebrations in 2013, the British Ecological Society awarded a grant to iSpot to incorporate observations of ecological interactions into their recordings. Members are encouraged to upload their pictures, identify the species involved and to classify the type of interactions that they observed. These include predation, parasitism, pollination and close associations among species.

In Britain, interactions have been recorded among more than 800 different species of wildlife. In South Africa, iSpotters identified an even greater number with more than 2,500 separate species recognised. Many of the records involve interactions between plants and animals, particularly insects eating plants and visiting flowers. Recent examples of interactions in the UK and Ireland can be found here

iSpot’s social network of enthusiastic volunteers and crowd-sourcing ethos creates valuable resources for scientists studying ecological interactions.

Speaking about the importance of iSpot’s social approach, Professor Silvertown said, “Most people are unable to identify most of the wildlife that they see but iSpot identifies 94% of the observations posted to it, so using this social network we can get a more accurate idea of the ecological richness of everyday observations. Our results show just how varied our everyday encounters with nature can be.”

iSpot has brought our traditional fascination with nature into the information technology age. By involving citizen scientists in the collection of data, iSpot encourages people to notice nature and to take an interest in their environment. The data collected provides a valuable, continuously updated resource for ecological studies.

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter: @SiveFinlay