Enter the citizen scientists

19 January 2016 - 02:25 By Katharine Child

More and more scientists are relying on the untrained eye of the public to make scientific discoveries. This is according to a study published last week in Plos that tracked the man-in-the-street's contribution to science. South Africans are part of this growing field of "citizen scientists", who discover new species of insects and record meteors.The UCT animal demography unit curates various "virtual museums" - or atlases of photographs submitted by South Africa's amateur scientists."Absolutely anyone can upload pictures on to the virtual museum. You don't need to know what you are taking a picture of. The panel of experts will identify it," said the unit's Professor Les Underhill.He said yesterday a lepidopterist called him recently for the contact details of a woman who had snapped a photo of a butterfly in Eastern Cape.He thinks it may be a new species of butterfly.Last year a South African woman photographed a yellow-banded sapphire, a butterfly which has not been seen in South Africa for 30 years, near Nelspruit.The Cape Town unit has also started a dung beetle atlas so citizen scientists can photograph the insects to add to the almost 25000 types cited by researchers at the University of Pretoria.UCT's "virtual museum" of photographs include images of rare butterflies, birds, mammals, dragonflies and fish.Amateur scientists offer an army of eyes to the world to record animals or explore the skies for new scientific discoveries."Citizen science is incredibly cost-effective and virtual museums are far more friendly than museums with butterflies stuck on pins and snakes in bottles of alcohol," said Underhill.Case Rijsdijk, vice-president of the Astronomical Society of SA, said all the meteorites recorded in the country were the result of the efforts of amateur astronomers...

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