Citizen Science: your observations can be powerful

By Susan Prior

I am sure many of you will want to know why it is important that we do censuses of species, such as the upcoming Great Southern Bioblitz, so I thought I would give you one recent example of how important observations by ordinary people, on the ground, living here on Norfolk Island, can be.

In a recently released checklist of coastal fishes for Norfolk, Lord Howe and the Kermadec Islands, I was able to claim twelve of the fish species from a (very) long list that are the first recorded sightings here on Norfolk Island. I must stress, that doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t seen these species here before, just that up until now they have either evaded being recorded by researchers and anyone else keen on cataloguing our wildlife; or maybe the person who saw them didn’t realise their significance; or maybe they weren’t here in the first place and are new arrivals to the region.

It is such a buzz to find something different. Every time I go for a snorkel I wonder if I will see something new. Which is exactly what I did recently; this time the sighting was of a sabre squirrelfish (Sargocentron spiniferum).

Why is it important to record these sightings?

It matters not just from the perspective of establishing an ecosystem’s biodiversity, but also because, over time and studied as a dataset, these observations can pick up trends, as I will explain.

I sent the details of my sabre squirrelfish observation to Dr Malcolm Francis, Principal Scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. He confirmed the fish’s identity and replied: ‘It is an interesting record – quite a bit further south than it usually is. From memory I’ve seen it in New Caledonia and Fiji.’

In the map of its distribution on the Australian Museum’s website page for this fish, you can see the most southerly distribution previously recorded is about 750 km (give or take) further north than Norfolk Island. The red dots show the previous sightings of the sabre squirrelfish. Norfolk Island is almost in the centre, near the bottom of the map. (Go to:

Thanks to these kinds of observations – often made by people just like you and me – RedMap (which stands for ‘Range Extension Database and Mapping Project’) has been able to produce a poster called ‘What’s on the Move Around Australia’. This poster records ten years of sightings from 2012 to 2022, and graphically demonstrates that fish are responding to climate change by shifting their ranges further south.
You can see it for yourself at this link:

We can’t be sure if our Norfolk Island sabre squirrelfish has simply been missed in previous fish censuses (not that there have been many formal comprehensive ones here) – which is quite possible because they are nocturnal, and quite shy, hiding under coral ledges during the day; or if this species has shifted its range southwards because of warming oceans. But for now, at least, we know it is here.

It only takes your observation of one little fish, or bird, or plant, recorded outside its previously understood range to add to a body of evidence that may prove, or disprove, scientific theories, which may in turn then be used to inform government policies on a range of things, including how to build resilience in the face of climate change, how best to preserve and conserve the environment, and much more.

That is citizen science at work. And it can be powerful and fulfilling.

Publicado el 23 de septiembre de 2023 21:42 por susanprior susanprior


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