In the second of our series of ‘meet the researcher’ blog posts, meet PhD student Anabelle Cardoso, who leads the very popular elephant-spotting project, Elephant Expedition.
Anabelle (fourth from left) and the on-the-ground research team at the research station in Gabon
Project: Elephant Expedition
Researcher: Anabelle Cardoso, PhD Candidate
Location: School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK
What are your main research interests?
‘Elephant Expedition’ is part of my PhD research at the University of Oxford, which I started in 2015. Our research is about understanding how forest elephants affect the ecosystems they live in.
Forest elephants are extremely endangered, largely due to hunting for ivory. However, because they live in such mysterious and remote forests, we don’t know as much about them as we would like to. Learning more about these important and threatened animals is critical, as the better you understand an animals ecology the more effectively you can advocate for and plan its conservation.
In our study site in Gabon, and across Africa, valuable savanna habitat is being lost due to over-expanding forests as a result of human-induced global change. Normally, you wouldn’t think of growing forests as a threat, but savanna habitat is home to most of the remaining large mammals in Africa and performs many important ecosystem functions, including carbon storage, so loss of savannas is a global concern. Elephants are ecosystem engineers meaning that they have a disproportionately large impact on the ecosystems they live in. This gives then the unique potential to affect how much forest or savanna is in a landscape, so they can help protect savannas in the face of expanding forests. Most of the research on how elephants might do this has been done on bush elephants, which are a completely different species to the forest elephants of central Africa. Our research aims to remedy this by focusing on how forest elephants affect the forest and savanna balance of the landscape they live in.
In order to better understand forest elephants, we first need to know where they are, so we’ve set up a network of hidden camera traps to photograph them as they move through the forest. Our 40 camera traps are attached to trees and take a photo when triggered by motion or heat. They are super useful for monitoring dangerous and elusive animals like forest elephants because they function 24/7 and can give us a really good idea about where in the landscape the elephants are spending their time without us having to disturb the elephants by following them on foot. This is where the citizen scientists come in – because the camera traps are quite sensitive they don’t only capture images of elephants, but also gorillas, chimpanzees, buffalo, antelope, or even passing birds and bats. The citizen scientists help us to classify all the images into categories based on what’s in them. We can then convert these classifications into data about where the elephants are at what times of year, and link it with our other environmental measurements to draw conclusions. What the citizen scientists contribute is absolutely essential to the research, and forms the backbone of everything we do.
Who else is in your project team? What are their roles?
Yadvinder Malhi (Oxford), Imma Oliveras (Oxford), William Bond (University of Cape Town), and Kate Abenermethy (University of Stirling) supervise me; and Josue Edzang-Ndong (ANPN Gabon) and David Lehmann (ANPN Gabon, University of Stirling) and Kathryn Jeffery (ANPN Gabon, University of Stirling) help managed the project on the ground in Gabon. A special mention should be made to @melvinosky and @jwidness, our wonderful project moderators.
Tell us more about the data used in your project
We have 40 motion and heat sensitive cameras set up along rainforest edges in Gabon, they take photos of all passing animals (mostly elephants, but also a lot of gorillas, chimpanzees, buffalo, leopard, and red river hogs!). These are the images that the volunteers help to classify.
How do Zooniverse volunteers contribute to your research?
In our project, volunteers are shown an image from one of our camera traps and they have to classify it according to what animal is in it. If the image contains a forest elephant, they also have to count how many elephants they see. The project is simple, so volunteers of all ages and skill levels can join, plus they can classify hundreds of images and therefore get lots of opportunities to spot cool animals.
The project’s feasibility relies on citizen scientists – from our network of hidden camera traps in the rainforest of Gabon we have nearly 2 million photographs we need to analyse and this would be impossible without the help of our dedicated volunteers. To date, there are 10,000 citizen scientists signed up on our website from all parts of the world, as long as you have an internet connection you can join the team.
Citizen science is wonderful because everybody benefits. As researchers we can process very large data sets (like our set of elephant photos) by harnessing the power of thousands of minds all working towards a common goal. This enables us to expand our research scope far beyond what would be possible as individuals – it’s the ultimate global collaboration. The citizen scientists benefit too. Volunteers are exposed to experiences that they might not otherwise have access to, for example in Elephant Expedition you essentially go on a virtual safari through the central African rainforest looking for forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards or mandrills (a type of monkey) – this just isn’t something most people will ever get the chance to do in real life. The project also has a vibrant online community of volunteers. One of the volunteers is a cancer sufferer and she says that participating in our project allows her to not be excluded from doing something just because she’s sick, it gives her a way to pass the time in hospital and makes her feel part of something meaningful.
Since we have so many camera traps and they are highly sensitive, we have many photographs – nearly 2 million! The photographs have a time and location stamp, so each time a volunteer classifies an image as having an elephant in it we know when and where that elephant was sighted. This information from the volunteers is synthesised and is what we’re using to build a time series of elephant habitat use across the landscape. Without the volunteers we would have no way of analysing the images, and therefore no data with which to answer our research questions. Citizen scientists play an integral role in the success of the project, the bottom line is that without them the project wouldn’t be able to work.
What have been the biggest challenges in setting up your project?
It isn’t really a challenge, more a learning journey. I think the amount of time it takes was a challenge, that you always have to be connected to answer questions and see to issues, and of course just learning how to manage such massive data sets has been a steep learning curve! It’s been great though, and I’ve been really humbled by the experience, because all of the volunteers on the project are so lovely and helpful it’s been amazing to be a part of.
What discoveries, and other outputs, has your project led to so far?
We haven’t started doing data analysis yet but we are very excited to see the results! We will be keeping all the volunteers updated on the project page as things continue.
What’s in store for your project in the future?
We have one more small run of final photos, and then we will begin the data analysis and writing up some research! It’s all very exciting and should be coming together in the next few months.
What are your favourite other citizen research projects and why?
Oh! I loved Snapshot Serengetti!
What guidance would you give to other researchers considering creating a citizen research project?
The potential for citizen science research is truly astounding. The world is a big place and the internet is able to connect us with one another. There are millions of potential volunteers across the globe who care as much about what you are researching as you do, and citizen science is an amazing way to connect with them. The best way to make a project effective is to find clever ways of linking volunteers and researchers according to the research interests of both. I think project effectiveness can also be measured by what both researchers and volunteers gain, for example did the research fulfil its scientific aims? Was the scope of the research enhanced by being able to use a global network of volunteers? Did the volunteers feel they gained some enjoyment and knowledge from the process of engaging with it? Would volunteers educate those around them about the research?
When designing a citizen science project, we found it most important to always remember that the people who volunteer to help you are smart and they care about what you’re researching. By including them in the project they become a part of the project, so always appropriately respect their time and skills. Our project depends on people sacrificing time out of their lives to help reach a research goal, so we always make sure we put in the time to communicate with volunteers, answer questions, and just generally engage personally with the people who make the project possible.
And finally, when not at work, where are we most likely to find you?
In Oxford, writing my thesis or destressing with some yoga, or maybe at home in Cape Town, South Africa, walking on the mountain or swimming in the sea. I also love to take road-trips across Southern Africa, there’s always something beautiful to see!