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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Citizen Scientists and Social Media Aim to Help Prevent Frog Extinctions

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Panamanian golden frogAround the world, frogs and other amphibians are disappearing due to habitat loss, climate change, pollution and the deadly chytrid fungus, which has already driven a few dozen species into extinction. But with critical information on many species still lacking, scientists can only go so far when trying to help save those in crisis.

To help save the 6,813 known species of amphibians (and those that haven't been identified by science yet), the Web site iNaturalist.org this week launched what it has dubbed the Global Amphibian Blitz, a citizen science–social networking drive to gather information on amphibians around the world.

Participants are being asked to take photos of frogs they encounter and then upload them to the iNaturalist site with GPS information on where the photos were taken. (The iNaturalist iPhone app can automatically add that GPS information.) Citizen scientists can try to identify the frogs they photograph, but the final species determinations will be made by scientists.

"The collaboration between the amateur and scientific communities is what makes this project unique and exciting," iNaturalist Co-director Scott Loarie said in a prepared statement. "We're not asking amateur naturalists to provide expert identifications—that's for the scientific community to do. But by being in the right place at the right time and armed with a camera, amateurs can provide information that scientists could never dream of collecting on their own."

"Using social networks to partner with amateurs is a powerful new tool," University of California, Berkeley, researcher Michelle Koo told the San Francisco Business Times. U.C. Berkeley hosts the AmphibiaWeb online database, which is one of iNaturalist's partners in the Blitz, along with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, Amphibian Ark and others.

The Global Amphibian Blitz launched on May 25. By the end of the first day, 154 species from 18 countries had been photographed and geo-tagged. The vast majority of those were in the U.S., although more international findings are expected as the project progresses.

Providing geo-tagged locations for some species has already generated a bit of controversy, with the fear that collectors will use the information to harvest rare species from the wild for the pet trade. Loarie wrote on the project's blog that the information shared with the public is obscured at least for species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species. "While you see the actual exact coordinates of your observation, everyone else sees a random point within five kilometers," he wrote. The iNaturalist advisory board will review any requests by scientists or conservation groups before releasing the real data. Based on feedback, Laurie says they will offer all users the option of obscuring their data, regardless of species.

iNaturalist.org was founded as a master's degree project in 2008 by Ken-ichi Ueda and two other Berkeley students. Its most recent project prior to the Amphibian Blitz was a citizen science effort to identify the range and characteristics of redwood trees.

For an introduction on participating in the Global Amphibian Blitz, check out this video:

 

Photo: Critically endangered Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) by Brian Gratwicke via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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