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Fire study recruits citizen biologists

A major biodiversity project is turning to citizen scientists to help collect critical data on the impact of Australia’s 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

The idea is for amateur sleuths to document which plants and animals are bouncing back from the devastation and which are struggling.

Some 425 members of the public have already submitted more than 17,500 observations of 2860 species to the Environment Recovery Project.

The initiative is linked to the nation’s leading open-access biodiversity data platform, the Atlas of Living Australia, which boasts some 88 million records.

However researchers at the University of NSW want to take things to the next level by zeroing in on three of the state’s key affected regions.

The Big Bushfire BioBlitz, a series of three-day events in February and March, will take place in Washpool National Park, the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and Murramarang National Park.

Volunteers will be asked to photograph as many species as possible in the time available within the Gondwana rainforests and upload them.

Organisers of the initiative say common organisms are just as interesting as rare ones, as are those which have been introduced.

PhD candidate Thomas Mesaglio, who is also a curator at social network iNaturalist, says the civilian scientists will provide an invaluable opportunity to maximise the amount of data that can be collected.

“Participants will get to interact with and learn from experts and also offer their own local expertise and insights … so it’s a fantastic two-way transfer of knowledge,” he said.

“These events are also great for motivating participants to become long-term contributors.”

Experts from partner organisations including the Australian Museum will lead the BioBlitzes.

Project founder Casey Kirchhoff from UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science says she was inspired to do so after fire destroyed her home at Wingello in the state’s southern highlands two years ago.

“Citizen scientists have been really motivated since the 2019-2020 bushfires,” she said.

“We’ve been delayed by COVID-19 but it’s great to finally have the opportunity to engage more directly with some of the bushfire-impacted communities … The more observations we can collect, the more we will know.”

While not everyone will be able to participate in person, anyone with access to a burned area Australia-wide is encouraged to.

The Black Summer fires scorched 18.6 million hectares across the country, with an estimated three billion animals killed or displaced, not including invertebrates.

The BioBlitzes are supported by the Regional Bushfire Recovery Fund and UNSW in partnership with the Atlas of Living Australia, Minderoo Fire and Flood Resilience Initiative and Australian Citizen Science Association.

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