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Kama’āina for Conservation: Hawaiian Biodiversity Surveys and Citizen Science

By Jason Preble

The Hawaiian archipelago is home to some 1,400 native vascular plant species, nearly 90% of which are endemic and half of which are threatened (Wagner 1999, Imada 2012). Though extensive work by numerous botanists has been conducted and a fairly thorough Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaii exists, regular revisions illustrate that there are missing pieces to be discovered (Wagner 1999, 2003, and 2012). One might think that with such a small land area and so much attention from naturalists, the Hawaiian Islands would have been completely picked over. However, that is not the case. Plants represent one of the largest groups, but rugged terrain, natural rarity, and declining ranges and populations make finding all Hawaiian taxa a continuing process. Monitoring efforts inform local conservation but are limited by resources. By lending their senses, skills, and smartphones, citizen scientists can be part of the answer to improving Hawaiian biodiversity censuses.

Extensive surveys conduCyaneacted by government agencies and NGO’s have made important discoveries and informed management programs, (Douglas & Shaw 1989, Motley 1995, Wood 2012, Wood & Kirkpatrick 2014) but are by no means comprehensive. The regularity of discoveries and myriad of unknowns demonstrate the need for greater monitoring. In recent years, several plant species have been rediscovered (Wagner 2012, Wood 2012). In the last year alone, 2 morphologically striking species new to science have been described: Hibiscadelphus stellatus and Cyanea konahuanuiensis (Oppenheimer et al. 2014, Sporck-Koehler et al. 2015). Both plants have less than 100 known individuals. Even with only 33 native bird species remaining, nearly half have unknown population sizes or trends and 9 are possibly extinct (Reed et al. 2012). Expanding surveys would undoubtedly uncover more species in need of protection, other populations of endangered species, and improve our understanding of habitat requirements, ecology, and changes over time.

The main challenge is a shortage of resources: funding, taxonomic knowledge, and public interest. Crowdsourcing of citizen scientists offers a solution to these deficiencies—a unique capacity to survey large geographic and temporal scales (beyond the scope of traditional ecological research methods) for little cost (Dickinson et al. 2010). The enthusiasm and knowledge of citizen scientists has already contributed greatly to biodiversity mapping research worldwide (Silverton 2009). Citizen science not only directly assists conservation projects but also promotes public involvement, trust in science, education, interest, and support for local conservation (Bäckstrand 2003, Wiggins & Crowston 2011). In Hawai’i, citizen scientists have been used to locate invasive trees (Feldkamp 2014) and monitor the Kamehameha butterfly (Pulelehua Project) but their potential remains underutilized.Pulelehua

In conjunction with the reach of social media and accessibility of smartphones, an online database should be created for Hawai’i where citizens and partner organizations can post and view species observations. This database would improve native and non-native species monitoring as well as provide a powerful educational tool. Several online platforms, guides, and mobile tools exist to support such citizen science projects (Silverton 2009, Teacher 2013). A partner smartphone application would allow for easy recording of observation location, time, and images. The inclusion of species information and identification guides would enrich user interactions and increase data quality. Results should generally be public but for sensitive species, access could be limited to those involved in management.

Data quality is a major concern in citizen science projects and can be further improved using user quizzes and by crosschecking with peers, researchers, and past survey results (Riesch & Potter 2013). Data collected opportunistically by recreationists are also likely to be biased towards popular areas and charismatic species. Campaigns could request particular data and some projects have used directed volunteer surveys successfully (Silverton 2009). Although there are statistical methods to deal with the unique challenges of citizen science data (Bird 2014), designing simple but rigorous sampling instructions is important. Any citizen effort will also free up resources for professional surveys to expand and prioritize less accessed areas and specific taxa data deficiencies.

If knowing really is half the battle, then the first half of the battle has yet to be won in Hawai’i and we will need a bigger army. There are still habitats to be scoured for species and populations as part of the larger movement to save Hawai’i’s amazing biodiversity.

‘A`ohe hua o ka mai`a i ka lā ho’okaāhi – No Task is Too Big When Done Together


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