It's more than just a hobby

Two years had passed since Harrison Warne and a friend discovered a lace monitor nest in a large termite mound, not far from where they lived on the south coast of NSW. Last December, the teenagers and another friend returned to the site, armed with a couple of small video cameras.

The footage they captured of two giant lizards gingerly clambering up the mound to inspect, sniff and lick the camera before slouching back into the bush could be the first time anyone has filmed this kind of interaction between a male and a female lace monitor.

At 17, Harrison already seems like a veteran wildlife photographer. His Facebook page is full of still and video images of reptiles, insects and other wildlife.

"I watched a lot of [TV naturalist] Steve Irwin when I was growing up and I really liked his work with reptiles. So that was how I got into it," says Harrison, who hopes to forge a career out of a combination of photography and ecology.

Harrison has posted some of his images on the website Atlas of Life in the Coastal Wilderness, an ambitious volunteer project that aims to identify as many as possible of the living creatures on the far south coast of NSW and the adjoining hinterland.

Atlas of Life volunteers – or citizen scientists as they are known in scientific circles – have recently joined forces with ClimateWatch, an initiative of the Earthwatch Institute.

Earthwatch brings amateur naturalists and scientists together to work on big projects such as surveying wildlife populations and collecting and recording data that will help shape scientific responses to climate change.

Around the world, citizen scientists have collected data on everything from koala populations on Victoria's Cape Otway to dinosaur fossils in the Ischigualasto Valley in Argentina. They have counted stars in distant galaxies, timed flowering events in suburban backyards and taken underwater photographs of rare seahorse species.

Some volunteers, such as Harrison, have captured rare footage that has expanded our understanding of how animals live in the wild. Others have made discoveries such as the Maratus harrisi, a species of Australian peacock spider named after Stuart Harris, who photographed it for the first time while on a bushwalk in the Australian Capital Territory.

The work of citizen scientists is much more than a feel-good exercise for the public, says Professor David Booth, a marine ecologist at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).

"This research just wouldn't get done without volunteers," says Professor Booth, a scientific adviser to the ClimateWatch-Atlas of Life collaboration, which is studying tropical fish larvae in rock pools.

"There is very little money in [science] coffers, certainly not enough to hire people to help with this kind of work," he says.

Under the guidance of scientists, volunteers have installed small underwater video cameras in the rock pools. The volunteers help analyse the footage in the hope of discovering what the larvae do before they are washed out to sea.

The project is also tracking the migration of about 170 land and 30 marine species to establish baseline data about marine populations.

"Over 100 marine reef fish species come into Sydney and about 60 species make it as far as Merimbula (on the NSW far south coast)," says Professor Booth, who has spent more than a decade monitoring the migration of tropical fish down the east coast of Australia.

"We are hoping some of the data collected by ClimateWatch will shed more light on their migratory habits."

Patrick Tegart, an honours graduate in environmental science at UTS, has been teaching the Merimbula volunteers to use the cameras in the pools and analyse the video.

Scientists have limited time and money so volunteers are becoming the backbone of a lot of field work, says Tegart.

"We will only need a small rise in sea temperature to really change these habitats. By getting the community involved, they have a better understanding of what happens in their local area and that helps towards maintaining a sustainable fishery.

"It is all about the experience and if it is a good experience, they will collect good data and they will spread the word to other potential volunteers.

"It is a relatively new approach in Australia [using so many volunteers] and we need a national approach to it."

ClimateWatch is establishing long-term survey sites in the region and hopes the work will continue for decades, says its Science Director, Dr Chris Gillies.

"We are already seeing some changes in the local environment," says Dr Gillies. "Most people come to these parts to fish, so they will see different kinds of fish in the future. Some of the ones they are used to catching will be less prevalent and they might see more tropical fish."

He says monitoring and recording those changes is labour intensive.  "There is more research like this than ever that needs to be done and the work simply would not get done without volunteers."

Stuart Harris's passion for wildlife photography – and in particular his near obsession with the Australian peacock spider – has opened a new window on this tiny, colourful genus. After posting a photograph on flickr in December 2008 of one of the spiders he spotted in the bush, it was confirmed as a new species. Since then, Harris has found another five species of the spider, produced a jumping spider calendar, is working on a children's book about peacock spiders and is pursuing studies in environmental monitoring and technology.

"It has been a wonderful story ... It has a meant-to-be feel to it," says Harris.

This story written and produced by the University of Technology, Sydney, for Brink, a publication distributed monthly in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The story It's more than just a hobby first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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