COS 24-8 - The Conker Tree Science project: Linking public engagement with ecology and hypothesis-driven research

Tuesday, August 9, 2011: 10:30 AM
9C, Austin Convention Center
Michael J. O. Pocock, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom and Darren M. Evans, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Hull, Hull, United Kingdom

Public engagement with ecological science is essential, for example, as we seek to raise awareness of ecosystem services (i.e. that ‘we rely on nature’). One effective method of engagement, which has direct benefits for research, is hypothesis-driven citizen science. The rapid spread of the horse chestnut leaf mining moth in the UK, which causes substantial aesthetic damage to horse chestnut trees, provided an ideal opportunity for members of the public to act as lab assistants undertaking real ecological research in their own homes and schools during the Conker Tree Science project. Participants gathered data by rearing parasitoids of the moth and by recording leaf damage to horse chestnut trees. The data was used to answer two important questions: is there more damage to trees where the moth has been present longest?, and are there more parasitoids where the moth has been present longest? Data was uploaded to the project website where results were collated and mapped for public viewing.


The involvement of members of the public and school children benefited our research since we were able to answer questions with data collected over spatial and temporal scales that were larger than would otherwise be possible. We found that damage to trees was substantially greater where the moth has been longest, although the effect plateaued after a couple of years. We found no evidence that there were more parasitoids where the moth has been present longest. By double-checking some of the data, we found some tasks resulted in more error-prone data, which needed to be accounted for in the analysis.

The involvement of members of the public also raised issues about the ethics of controlling a naturally colonising ‘pest’ species on a non-native host. Such ethical dilemmas are likely to become more frequent with environmental change and citizen science is an effective way of opening opportunities for debate. Overall, well-designed and, ideally, hypothesis-driven citizen science provides great opportunities for combining research and public engagement and the data collected so far opens questions to be addressed with future research, both carried out by the public and within institutions.

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