Citizen Science: it takes a community to create knowledge - Keep Your Eyes Peeled!

Urbangene is asking Geneva residents for some assistance: It wants their help in finding the ponds where toads live. But this study not only focuses on the endangered amphibians. It also investigates stocks of a small butterfly and a variety of herbaceous plant. Through this project, researchers want to learn more about the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that help promote biodiversity in an area that is subject to heavy settlement development.

Text: Cornélia Mühlberger de Preux

Ivo Widmer
Ivo Widmer, biologist, Urbangene

Urbangene is asking Geneva residents for some assistance: It wants their help in finding the ponds where toads live. But this study not only focuses on the endangered amphibians. It also investigates stocks of a small butterfly and a variety of herbaceous plant. Through this project, researchers want to learn more about the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that help promote biodiversity in an area that is subject to heavy settlement development. Text: Cornélia Mühlberger de Preux

Nature enthusiasts in the Geneva area are being asked to pay attention: Whenever they come across a pond around Geneva on their way to work or on a walk, they should report it to Urbangene. And they should definitely do so if they have seen a toad that is protected in Switzerland. These amphibians migrate in early spring to bodies of water, where they lay their eggs and wrap their spawn strings around plants. “The clock is ticking, because the spawning period lasts only about two to three weeks”, explains Ivo Widmer, biologist, genetic ecology expert and co-founder of Urbangene. Then, the animals disappear again in the forests, where they are much more difficult to track.

This large-scale project, which will be carried out under the direction of the Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and in cooperation with the “Grand Genève” agglomeration programme, plans to use genetic information to investigate how settlement development affects biodiversity. Urbangene concentrates on the Canton of Geneva, the Nyon district (VD) as well as several French communities - an area with a total population of around 950,000. The decisive factor in achieving representative results is comprehensive coverage of the habitats of all species under study.

“Settlement development leads to natural habitat fragmentation and encroachment”, says Ivo Widmer. “It is important to know how species migrate and are affected by settlement development. This is the only way we can prepare instruments and recommendations that can be used to develop timely concrete solutions for connecting habitats”.

Collected on site

There is a very small window of time in which DNA samples can be collected from toads for analysis. That is why it is so important to know where the animals occur. “Protected species may not be collected or caught in Switzerland. But special authorisation may be granted if it serves the purpose of biodiversity conservation”, explains Danielle Hofmann of the FOEN’s Species and Habitats Section. She thinks it is a good idea to involve the public in the search: “Participatory approaches encourage individuals to observe plants and animals more intensely and develop their own knowledge”.

While Ivo Widmer tracks the toads especially in the spring, in the summer he is interested in the broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and the small white (Pieris rapae), a white butterfly whose wings have gold-coloured undersides. Urbangene focuses on these three species because they move differently: Toads crawl on the ground, broadleaf plantain pollen and seeds are carried by the wind, animals and humans, and small whites flutter through the air. In addition, they are all found throughout the greater Geneva region and are very common in urban areas. Five transects were noted for the study in consideration of local urban development plans and projects - lines with observation points that lead from the densely settled city to loosely built-up rural areas. The starting point of the star-shaped transects is Rousseau Island in Geneva. From there, they follow along the Rhone River toward La Plaine, in the direction of Annemasse, to Salève in the French Prealps of Savoie, to the airport and toward Versoix. The studied species were located at several hundred points along all of these lines. Urbangene’s hypothesis is: “The denser and more fragmented an urban space is, the lower the species diversity is.”

The leaves of the broadleaf plantain are relatively easy to collect. It is much harder to locate the mobile animals. Their presence also depends more on the season and the weather. For instance, in the wet summer months of 2014, it was especially hard to find the small white. “But even in fair weather, it is also quite a challenge to catch this butterfly because it flies fast and high in a zigzagging pattern”, explains Ivo Widmer.

Decoding in the laboratory

It takes less time to conduct tests in the laboratory than it does to carry out fieldwork. After extracting the DNA from the samples, researchers can identify differences between individuals using genetic markers and determine how they are related to one another. These genetic analyses should provide clues to how much the species move from one favourable environment to another and are able to adapt to different habitats. Based on these findings, instruments such as indicators, information systems or maps will be developed and recommendations will be made.

Urbangene began in March 2013 and ends sometime in 2015. The project will be accompanied by GreenTrace, a study on the roles and importance of biodiversity to Geneva residents carried out by researchers from the EPFL and the University of Lausanne, University of Geneva (UNIGE) as well as the University Hospital of Geneva (HUG). In the first phase, the impacts of settlement development on the selected species will be studied. Then, in the second phase, the focus will be placed on how Geneva residents perceive biodiversity in their environment. And finally, health data will be analysed in order to find out how much proximity to flora and fauna affects or harms well-being and quality of life.

After the Urbangene project wraps up, the butterfly nets and test tubes will not simply be set aside. Instead, the plan is to continue the research but focus on other species and issues such as the influence of artificial light on biodiversity.

Geneva residents are now on board

As for the toads, they are more threatened in urban areas than small whites or broadleaf plantains, especially because humans rapidly change the landscape and expose the toads to great risks when they cross streets. Anyone who discovers a pond and wants to report it can do so through the WebGIs platform at http://urbangene.heig-vd.ch. “It is extremely easy. Just enter the site on a map specially designed for that purpose using GPS coordinates. Interested parties can also provide other data on species they’ve sighted or answer additional study questions”, adds Ivo Widmer. They also have the option of following project phases and development on the Urbangene Web site and in social media such as Facebook.

Citizen science on the Internet

Geneva is not the only place where science relies on the observation skills of nature enthusiasts and experts.

www.infospecies.ch is a platform supported by the FOEN that provides access to various species centres. It is intended for connoisseurs who can differentiate, for example, between Knautia godetii (long-leaved scabious) and Knautia velutina (fuzzy-leaved scabious) for reported findings.

www.opennature.ch ermöglicht es Laien, ihre Beobachtungen zu Jahreszeiten und Wetterextremen sowie zu Tieren und Pflanzen einzugeben.

www.stadtwildtiere.ch is mainly dedicated to the Zurich region. This site lets you report wild animal sightings and upload photos without an account.

www.phaeno.ethz.ch/globe is intended for school-aged children and anyone who is interested in seasonal phenomena such as leaf growth or the flowers of specific plants.

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Last modification 11.02.2015

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