citizen science

Discover our waterway warriors

In Melbourne’s bustling inner CBD, sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the diversity of the nature around us - we can often feel disconnected. There are many hidden opportunities for us to engage with our rich flora, fauna and green spaces at a local scale and reconnect with the natural world.

Green spaces, wetlands and the biodiversity within them contribute to the livability of Melbourne as well as play a vital role in maintaining people’s health and wellbeing – healthy environments, healthy people. Melbourne is home to many wetland environments, from extensive natural waterways such as the Tarago River in Werribee and the Yarra River, to the constructed wetlands of Trin Warren Tam-boore in Royal Park.

Australia’s first nationwide waterway monitoring event, the National Waterbug Blitz, is the perfect opportunity to engage with Victoria’s unique freshwater ecology and learn about the health of our waterways.

Trin Warren Tam-boore Wetland in Royal Park.  Image:    City of Melbourne

Trin Warren Tam-boore Wetland in Royal Park. Image: City of Melbourne

Wetlands are biodiversity hotspots which provide community spaces and habitat for wildlife, filter stormwater, reduce riverbank erosion, and support many other functions essential to urban and rural life.

Every puddle and river you step past or in contains miniature worlds with intricate networks of food webs and species with multi-stage lifecycles. Pick up any stone or submerged piece of wood from your nearest waterway, turn it over and you will reveal a variety of scattering creatures under a thin film of water – these are freshwater macroinvertebrates, more commonly known as waterbugs.

Waterbugs are a diverse group of critters that lack a backbone (they’re invertebrates!). They are large enough for humans to see with the naked eye, and include leeches, worms, jellyfish, dragonfly larva, water boatmen and even freshwater sponges, each with their own unique way of life. Waterbugs perform various functions within waterway ecosystems, including sediment mixing, nutrient cycling, energy flow through food webs and the breakdown of organic matter, which releases nutrients into the water - some species contributing more than others. These actions all contribute to and determine the condition of the waterway system.

Macroinvertebrates can live in all kinds of freshwater environments, but which species are present in a particular wetland is highly dependent on the water quality, each individual species differing in its pollutant sensitivity. This means that waterbugs can be used all around the world as direct bioindicators for environmental health and pollutant impact within our waterways.

Water Boatman Nymph.  Image: Larah McElro /    Flickr    [CC BY-NC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode)].

Water Boatman Nymph. Image: Larah McElro / Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode)].

In healthy ecosystems, there will be as many as if not more pollutant-sensitive macroinvertebrates than those more tolerant of bad conditions. The release of pollutants creates an unstable environment that disrupts the species balance in an ecosystem, allowing tolerant species to thrive whilst essential, sensitive species suffer and decline in number.

As well as being easy to sample using simple tools, anybody can observe this diverse array of creatures. Waterbugs are abundant within all aquatic ecosystems; every river, lake and wetland is home to a plethora of different types. They have relatively short lifespans and thus show the effects of environmental conditions over a short period of time – weeks to months. Any change in the waterbug community will be indicative of recent changes to environmental quality, giving a robust picture of the ecosystem’s current state.

That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties when monitoring waterbugs. Although there is a menagerie of diverse species, there are many species that are yet to be properly described. It can also be difficult for the average environmentalist to identify waterbugs to a species level without formal training.

A gradient of the pollution sensitivity or tolerance levels of various waterbugs.  Image:    National Waterbug Blitz

A gradient of the pollution sensitivity or tolerance levels of various waterbugs. Image: National Waterbug Blitz

Considering each waterbug warrior has a job to perform, with declining numbers we may begin to lose their functions within ecosystems. Digging deeper, each of these species arguably has an intrinsic value, no matter how small they might be.

With more research being done every day into our wonderful waterbugs, we can hopefully begin to better understand their relevance in the larger, complex ecosystems that they inhabit. The good news is that anyone can get involved in the City of Melbourne’s free Melbourne Waterbug Blitz events this October. Make sure you come along to one or more of the following events if you’d like to contribute to our understanding of Melbourne’s incredible waterbugs. It’s a great way to connect to nature in the middle of the city.

Science Seminar – Wednesday 10th October, 5:30pm-8:00pm at the Hellenic Museum (280 William St)

This will cover the importance of waterbugs, freshwater ecosystems and waterway health in urban areas. Speeches from waterbug experts, freshwater ecologists and urban ecologists.

Waterbug Collection – Saturday 20th October, 10:00am-11:30am at various locations

Join expert survey leaders in Melbourne’s beautiful parks and help collect samples of the living waterbugs in our waterways. Choose from Carlton Gardens, Domain Parklands, Fitzroy Gardens or Royal Park.

Dragonfly Festival – Saturday 20th October, 12:30pm-4:00pm at the State Netball and Hockey Centre, Royal Park

Get to know the local waterbugs a little better – take a closer look at the samples gathered from the morning sessions and uncover the secrets about Melbourne’s waterways. There will be food, refreshments, activities and family fun.

You can also download The Waterbug App and conduct a survey yourself.

The Waterbug Blitz is a great opportunity to get involved and put waterways under the magnifying glass by collecting valuable data and assessing the wellbeing of our freshwater ecosystems. This will help both the environment and our management of it, but it’s also a great way to engage with nature and have some fun with your local community.

So grab a net, a magnifying glass and a small container and let’s get surveying!

For more information about the National Waterbug Blitz and associated events head to www.waterbugblitz.org.au.


Johanna Tachas is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne studying ecology and evolutionary biology. She has a passion for science communication and is currently completing an internship at Remember The Wild.


Banner image of a Blue Skimmer (Orthetrum caledonicum) courtesy of Richard Higgins from Wollongong, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Be The Scientist You Always Wanted To Be

As a child, did you ever dream of becoming a famous scientist, but ‘life’ just seemed to get in the way? Or maybe you discovered your love of science later in life and thought it was too late to restart your career? Or even still, maybe you finished a degree but never found a job in the industry, but still yearn to pursue your love of discovering and exploring the intricacies of the natural world? 

When talking to people about their current jobs, I often hear the list of barriers, which at the time seemed too great for them to overcome. In actual fact, though, many wished that they had persevered. I simply respond with, “Well, it’s not too late.” They usually give a surprised look and provide me with a mixture of responses equating to: “It’s too late in life to pursue my interest in science, but even if I did drop everything, how on earth would I be able to get into it now? I mean, I can’t afford to go back to university full-time and the current concepts aren’t exactly fresh in my mind anymore.”

Albert Einstein is often considered the face of modern Western science, yet more and more organisations are now encouraging the public, and not just academics, to get involved in research.  Image: RMY Auctions

Albert Einstein is often considered the face of modern Western science, yet more and more organisations are now encouraging the public, and not just academics, to get involved in research. Image: RMY Auctions

This is when I get to tell them the good news. Citizen science is alive and kicking in just about every scientific field imaginable. It's also in need of people just like yourselves! That’s right - the chance to fulfill that childhood dream without even having to make a career change is far more achievable than ever before.

Citizen science is the movement in which members of the public partner with scientists to answer real-world problems. Around the globe, citizen science is growing exponentially and contributing important data to a host of different projects with real and significant outcomes. For example, citizen scientists have contributed to transcribing old ship logbooks to digitise the data, monitoring bird populations for eBird, playing computer games that may help scientists learn more about retinal neurons, collecting water samples to help estimate the health of river and estuary systems for a group called Estuary Watch Victoria, and even participate in the search for the next exoplanet (a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system and may have life) by measuring the brightness of a star using images taken by LCOGT’s telescopes.

More recently, an emerging branch of citizen science includes Australian projects that utilise smartphone and tablet technology to help identify populations of different animal and plant species. There are more than 1,100 active and searchable global citizen science projects listed on SciStarter, all of which are waiting for volunteers like you and me to sign up.

What will you discover as a citizen scientist?  Image: Natural History Museum, UK

What will you discover as a citizen scientist? Image: Natural History Museum, UK

Closer to home, I interviewed Andrew Gray, a co-founder of BioQuisitive, a citizen science project with big plans right in the heart of Melbourne. In a nutshell, BioQuisitive is located in Brunswick and is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people from all walks of life to come and learn about biology and life sciences, and get involved in workshops, classes and projects.

Gray’s journey began just like most of ours. He had a passion and imagination for science but didn’t have a place to express it. It wasn’t until he was asked to start up an enterprise through the Global Challenges Science Program at Monash University that he began to explore the possibilities. While always being a fan of hackerspaces (essentially a shared resource in which a group of members all passionate about a similar field can collaborate), he realised there was no shared science space available. The only similar space in Australia was in Sydney, founded by none other than Meow-Ludo Meow Meow, the director of Biohacker Space BioFoundry. Gray met with Meow Meow and was shown what was possible by being introduced to his network and laboratories. At that moment, the possibility of creating a similar but unique space became a reality.

A little way down the track and after countless hours of hard work and persistence, BioQuisitive is now a thriving haven for citizen scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds. As Gray explains, “… we're breaking the mould here in a country where a paradigm exists in how people partake, who will partake, and where they will partake in science. Just yesterday I had a member of the public, with little to no scientific background, learning and conducting molecular biological experiments by transforming bacteria to do new things.”

BioQuisitive is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people to get involved in workshops, classes and projects.  Image: Eddie Jim / The Age

BioQuisitive is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people to get involved in workshops, classes and projects. Image: Eddie Jim / The Age

While I expected the projects of a new, start-up citizen science movement to have the bare bones in regards to resources and the calibre of projects being undertaken, I was remarkably amazed to discover the opposite was true.

“Members are working on a variety of projects. Bio-printers, isolating and harnessing the power of plastic eating bacteria, using CRISPR to knock out various metabolic pathways in yeast, Microbial Fuel Cells, and renewable energy projects,” Gray explains. “Previously we have even worked on projects in collaboration with Cornell University and MIT media lab.”

Asked about what BioQuisitive hopes to become in the future, Gray says, “Our community is comprised of people from all walks of life. We have scientists in research and academia, artists, musicians, brewers, accountants, economists, lawyers and many more contributing to make this work as a team. It's unreal to me, and I'm still finishing my undergraduate degree, but I feel like this is how science should be practiced.”

While BioQuisitive may not be for everyone, it is one fantastic example of how getting involved in citizen science has never been so achievable. Right now, there are literally thousands of opportunities to be the scientist you always wanted to be.

For more information on BioQuisitive, don’t hesitate to get in touch via info@bioquisitive.org.au or http://www.bioquisitive.org.au/


Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Ollie Toth.

Birds from the Backyard and Boyhood

I recorded a new species for my backyard bird list. It wasn’t an exceptional species; it was a crimson rosella. But what made this record exceptional was that it occurred during one of my 20-minute Aussie Backyard Bird Count survey periods. That crimson rosella record is now part of a data set comprising almost 1.5 million individual bird sightings made across the country during a single week. Together, these data represent a treasure trove of information from which much will be learnt about the health of Australia’s bird communities and the changes that are happening.

Of course, not every bird I recorded in my backyard was new. There were the spotted doves that frequently sit on my garden shed roof of a late afternoon, and a pair of common blackbirds that I’ve come to know personally. I watch them from my kitchen window while I do the washing-up (a welcome distraction to make that chore a little easier to complete). The female is much bolder than the male and will forage on the open lawn close to the house. The male skulks along the garden edges near the back of the garden, is ever vigilant to threats, and flies off at the slightest disturbance. I was glad that these individuals also made it into the grand data set, to be part of something special.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}    I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

 I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

I was away from home for the second half of Aussie Backyard Bird Count week. A work trip meant that I was in a small town in north-east Victoria, about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up, so I took the opportunity to do a few surveys where I was staying. The soundscape in my adopted backyard was ever so familiar and took me straight back to my youth. It was like listening to your favourite song - the one you’ve listened to on repeat until you just about ruined it for yourself. There was the rhythm section that filled my childhood summers: rufous whistler and yellow-faced honeyeater. There was the guitar solo provided by sacred kingfisher and fan-tailed cuckoo, and the vocals of grey shrike-thrush. But this track must have been a live version because there were some subtle differences too. Although only a short distance down the road, the bushland in the area I was staying was wetter than my hometown and, accordingly, the bird community was not quite the same either. White-naped honeyeaters and golden whistlers were much more common here than where I grew up, showing just how particular the needs of a species can be.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

It was one of the species not found in the dry woodlands surrounding my hometown that tested my scientific credibility most during the survey. This species was the eastern whipbird. Just moments after I had completed a 20-minute survey, the call of an eastern whipbird rang out; these birds have one of the most distinctive and beautiful calls of all our species. Instantly, there was a part of me that said, ‘Add it to the tally. They’re such a cool bird and it was only just after the timer sounded.’ Despite the temptation, I held firm and left it off my data sheet. I am glad I did because it is this standardised survey time that enables the people using the data to compare the number of birds reported between different regions or even different survey years. The number of birds recorded this year is almost 50% higher than the number recorded during the 2015 Aussie Backyard Bird Count, but the number of surveys lodged has also increased by over 40%. Without knowing that each survey was of the same duration, it would be impossible to know whether changes were due to increases in bird populations or whether it was simply because people were searching longer and therefore finding more birds.

The timing of the surveys is also important for allowing comparisons between years. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is held in the second half of October each year. This helps to minimise differences that might occur due to migrant birds not being in the same place. If the bird counts were held in summer one year and winter the next, Melbourne birders might record black-faced monarchs and red knots in the former, but these species would likely be absent during the latter. It would be impossible to infer changes in population numbers if this was the case.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Whether I was observing individuals that I have become accustomed to seeing on a daily basis, or reacquainting myself with the bird species that I grew up with, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count gave me an excuse to get out and enjoy my surroundings. I always enjoy taking time to look and listen to the birds around me, but there is something deeply satisfying about knowing that what you see and hear will go some way to ensuring that those sights and sounds are conserved long into the future. I hope you enjoyed taking part as much as I did, and if you didn’t take part, I recommend you keep a lookout for when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place again in the second half of October 2017


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth