Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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18-Apr-2014

Contact: Daizaburo Shizuka
dshizuka2@unl.edu
402 472-1544
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

'Condor Watch' enlists public to help save California condors

New website involves 'citizen scientists'

Lincoln, Neb., April 17, 2014 -- A newly launched website will enlist "citizen scientists" in the latest battle to restore California condor populations in the southwestern U.S.

North America's largest bird, with a wingspan of more than nine feet, the giant scavengers were on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, with less than two dozen remaining in the wild. Three decades later, conservation efforts have restored the population to more than 400, with about half living in the wild.

Motion-activated cameras that monitor feeding stations in California could provide important clues about the birds' movements, feeding habits and social connections. But the cameras have generated about 175,000 photographs, more than scientists can analyze without help.

Condor Watch will enable the public to examine photos, identify birds by their tag numbers and note their behaviors. Researchers hope thousands of people will join the effort.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln ecologist Daizaburo Shizuka hopes the photos will provide new insight into how lead poisoning moves among condor populations. Lead poisoning is one of the leading causes of condor mortality. The birds get poisoned when they eat carrion that was killed with lead bullets or lead shot.

"If the birds have stable, long-term relationships with one another, that could influence how lead poisoning spreads through the population," Shizuka said. "If birds are feeding together and one bird finds this lead-laden carcass, it might bring other individuals there."

Shizuka said he compares lead poisoning among condors to smoking in humans. "It's not an infectious disease, but it could be a socially transmitted form of pollution. I think social networks could help us understand how lead poisoning spreads through condor populations."

Without a solution to the problem of lead poisoning, the condor population can be sustained only through intensive and costly management efforts, said Myra Finkelstein, adjunct professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the project's principal investigator.

"We have over 100,000 archived photos of condors in the wild, but we don't have the resources to go through them and mine all the information they could provide," she said.

Other researchers involved are Donald Smith of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Daniel Doak and Alexandra Rose of the University of Colorado Boulder; Vickie Bakker of Montana State University; Carolyn Kurle of University of California, San Diego; and Holly Copeland of the Nature Conservancy in Lander, Wyo. The project is conducted in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pinnacles National Park, Ventana Wildlife Society, Santa Barbara Zoo, and the Nature Conservancy.

To build the web site, the researchers partnered with Zooniverse, the internet's largest citizen science portal. The site includes information about the species, the project and how the citizen scientist platform works.

Finkelstein said watchers should be able to get to know the birds they see on the site.

"Condors are unique in that they are so closely managed," she said. "One of the fun things about Condor Watch is that when you identify a bird, it give you a little biography about that individual."

Findings will be published via blogs and other media as they are made, in some cases ahead of published articles in academic journals. By giving more people access to information in "real time," the scientists hope to quickly move toward the project's ultimate goal of better conservation practices.

"The data is going to be directly applied to develop better strategies to prevent lead poisoning," Shizuka said.

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Contact: Daizaburo Shizuka, research assistant professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Biological Sciences, 402-472-1544, dshizuka2@unl.edu

Myra Finkelstein, adjunct professor of environmental toxicology, University of California, Santa Cruz, 831-459-1249 or myraf@ucsc.edu.