Lay people can help scientists conserve the protected Florida fox squirrel and endangered species just by collecting data, a new University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences study shows.
So-called citizen scientists did a commendable job collecting information on the fox squirrel, according to the study.
Until this study, the conservation and management of fox squirrels in Florida was constrained by a lack of reliable information on the factors influencing its distribution. But with this research, which combines sightings and photos of fox squirrels by everyday citizens and professional ecologists, scientists now know they can get help from citizen scientists in conserving the fox squirrel population.
"When citizens are used in research to find animals across large scales, such as the state of Florida, they provide lots of information that is generally useful for conservation efforts," said Bob McCleery, a UF/IFAS associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation. "We showed that data collected by citizens has a considerable amount of biases, but it is equal, if not better, than data collected by trained professionals. Additionally, regardless of its bias, citizen-collected data provided reliable predictions of fox squirrel occurrence and helped understand fox squirrel habitat relationships."
McCleery supervised a thesis conducted by Courtney Tye, a now-deceased master's student in the UF/IFAS wildlife ecology and conservation department. For the study, Tye and her colleagues put up a website, http://bit.ly/1SPcfs6, for citizen scientists and professional ecologists to post where they had spotted Sherman fox squirrels and to post photos of the animals.
They collected 4,222 sightings of fox squirrels from 66 of 67 counties in 194 days in 2011 to 2012. Of those locations, 73 percent came from citizens and 27 percent from natural resource professionals.
"Generating this amount of data would have taken an extraordinary effort in the field," the study said.
Researchers examined their findings in four data sets, including citizens only and professionals only, to check for bias. Citizen science is increasingly used in ecology and conservation, yet researchers remain concerned about the value of such data, the study says. The UF/IFAS researchers say their results illustrate that citizen science data do not show sample bias to lower the predictive ability of their models.
"It is these kinds of synergies between citizens and professionals that are going to be increasingly necessary to generate the information we need to develop conservation strategies for the planet's growing biodiversity crisis," the study said.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the fox squirrel may be found throughout Florida in open woods and mangrove swamps. Of the four subspecies in Florida, two are listed as protected: Sherman's Fox Squirrel and the Big Cypress Fox Squirrel.
The findings are published online in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
Materials provided by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Original written by Brad Buck. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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