On a wing and a prayer: How perestroika put a Cape bird-lover on a fascinating new path
Stats prof Les Underhill has helped build a new model army of citizen scientists, busy changing the way research is done and strengthening efforts to stave off extinctions. It all began with a trip to the tundra. Rio Button reports.
First published by Daily Maverick
We peak over the jetty, scanning the rocky beach through binoculars, before ducking down to discuss in hushed voices our next move. We’re on Robben Island looking for African oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini) nests. This island is one of the few places where these charismatic shorebirds that mate for life, can breed safe from the beachgoers’ dogs who terrorise their chicks.
By “we”, I’m referring to Les Underhill – the author of my first-year statistics textbook, head of the Biodiversity and Development Institute and retired University of Cape Town statistics professor – and myself, a recently graduated conservation biologist. I’m learning to find the nests of the bright-red billed and glossy-black plumed birds who I will be monitoring for the rest of the summer breeding season.
Russia and a revolution
Underhill teaches me a technique for finding nests that he perfected as a boy on Rondebosch Common, a 40-hectare conservation area in the Cape Town suburb where he grew up. It’s the very same know-how that he wowed Russian scientists with on his expedition to the Arctic. That trip was back in 1991, a few months before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
So how did a South African stats professor land an all-expenses-paid bird monitoring expedition to the Russian tundra, guest of a country that was then, at the tail-end of the apartheid era, an implacable foe of his own country?
The answer lies in Underhill’s knack for bringing together an enthusiasm for birds that hatched when he was a boy with statistical expertise, developed during the course of a distinguished academic career. As he explains it, his aim has been to “put stats into biology and bring biology into stats”.
His pioneering work led Underhill to establish two organisations that track changes in nature, relying heavily on “citizen science” projects. These gather data over larger areas and for longer periods than any individual researcher could manage alone. Ultimately, they are helping to create a digital memory bank of plant and animal details, spanning Africa and drawing on the labours of generations of researchers and citizen scientists.
The depth and breadth of the database allows researchers to better examine patterns and track changes in a range of species. It means findings can be formulated more quickly, critical for conservation. And thanks to Underhill’s efforts, any regular Joe with a smartphone and access to the internet can become a nature enthusiast and contribute to conservation as a citizen scientist.
Underhill has never regarded birds, biology and the business of number-crunching to be odd bedfellows. Throughout his career as a statistician at the University of Cape Town he’s given wings to avian interests that originally “rubbed off” on him as lad from his father who was an avid bird watcher.
As a student, Underhill was part of the first successful wader research group in the southern hemisphere. (Waders are a group of birds that “wade” through sand or mud to find their food.)
“We caught and tagged tens of thousands of waders, mainly at Langebaan Lagoon,” he tells me, referring to the large saltwater lagoon on South Africa’s West Coast. As the group’s statistician, it was his task to analyse the vast amounts of data the group collected. And under the guidance of ornithologists, he published many scientific papers from that data.
Among the annual visitors to the lagoon are a number of wader species that make the long-haul flight (a cool 30,000km round trip) from their breeding grounds in Russia’s barren, frozen tundra to holiday by the white sandy beaches and turquoise waters of Langebaan. And the papers that followed on the birds did not pass unnoticed by the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences. In time an invite from the Soviets landed on Underhill’s desk and he joined the expedition that would change the course of his career.
“Bear in mind,” he recalls, “that statisticians are supposed to sit in their offices analysing the data that other people collected. I was desperately lucky to be the person who got the invitation to join the expedition to the tundra. The tundra was not where the average person would choose to go on vacation. It was tough and demanding fieldwork, but it was outdoors and it was indescribably beautiful. That trip to the tundra, 30 years ago, changed my life.”
Back in the RSA
Returning home, Underhill switched the focus of his research.
Previously he had mainly used his statistical expertise to solve mathematical problems, now he wanted to use it more to answer biological questions that would contribute to a better understanding of nature and, ultimately, its conservation. He began plotting to establish a unit that would let him do this for the benefit of birds. And before the year was over he’d launched the Avian Demography Unit. With more biology students in the unit studying a range of animals, its name changed to the Animal Demography Unit, or ADU as it became generally known. In 2005 the ADU launched the Virtual Museum.
Instead of biological specimens on shelves or in bottles, like in traditional museums, the Virtual Museum collects, digitally stores, organises and analyses digital records of animals, fungi, and plants from sightings recorded across Africa. The records date to 1726 and include databases of dragonflies, birds, mushrooms, fish, scorpions, frogs, trees and much more.
Today the museum is co-managed by the University of Cape Town’s FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and the Biodiversity and Development Institute, which Underhill founded in 2015. Underhill’s institute is independent of the University of Cape Town and aims to foster research and community action in biodiversity conservation as well as social development.
The records are digitally stored and organised in the Virtual Museum. In April this year its servers narrowly missed destruction during the fires that ravaged Cape Town. But backups are kept in off-campus databases – a vital record that lets researchers track species’ movements and population numbers. It helps researchers detect changes out of line with the natural cycles. They can then sound the alarm, warning government departments, conservation agencies, and research groups so they can respond, hauling species away from the precipice of extinction.
Underhill credits citizen scientists with collecting a treasure trove of biodiversity data, a multitude of fragments of information that help professional researchers with their work. “We build the jigsaw puzzle of biodiversity from all the pieces, and transform millions of bits of data into information that can be acted on,” Underhill explains.
He encourages people to open their eyes and truly notice and appreciate the incredible life around them. He reasons that by engaging people’s fascination with nature, they are more likely to value and protect it.
“Nature” doesn’t necessarily refer to the great outdoors. Citizen science may be about identifying the gecko on your kitchen ceiling, the beetle in your flower pot, or the birds drinking nectar in your garden. This was especially true during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown when a deluge of “at home” entries poured in. They would prove valuable, helping Underhill and his team better understand how wildlife uses urban spaces.
How does it work?
It’s easy to contribute to the institute and the unit’s projects. Citizen scientists typically snap photos of organisms and upload them with the details of where and when they found them. Some specially trained citizen scientists catch and release birds to gather information about birds’ health, size, weight, and moult stage.
They put a ring with a unique code around a bird’s foot, so it can be identified and information about it collated if the bird is recaught. This information is valuable for understanding how climate change is affecting birds’ natural movements and health.
Behind the scenes, the institute’s researchers manage the data collected, add historical records and analyse it, joining the dots and giving context and meaning to the work of an ever-growing community of citizen scientists.
Underhill, a spry 74-year-old, who is active on Facebook and Instagram, delights in piquing a curiosity about nature among his army of citizen scientists, friends and followers. “There are no stupid questions,” he reckons, and enthusiastically engages with questions, big and small.
He hosts events, sends newsletters, and holds conferences to keep his community of more than 2,000 citizen scientists up to date with new developments. And there was little let-up for Underhill during the lockdown. He initiated Biodiversity and Development Institute virtual citizen scientist hours and events online. Guest speakers, from Siberia to Seychelles, presented on topics spanning everything from seabirds to seahorses, and citizen scientists from across Africa attended religiously.
Underhill embraced bleeding edge blockchain technology, partnering the Biodiversity and Development Institute with the tech start-up Wildcards, a conservation fundraising organisation.
In less than a year Wildcards raised 18,000 USD for the institute. The platform lets funders support the institute by becoming the guardians to tokens of virtual animal cards of species the institute helps conserve in real life. Every month, guardians make subscription donations to the institute. The institute will use these crypto-currency windfalls to continue its work.
Jason Smythe, a Wildcards co-founder, explains: “Wildcards aims to facilitate the intersection of economics, altruism, and community to break down the traditional barriers to conservation fundraising.”
Underhill believes the citizen science community is a force to be reckoned with. The data it collects is of real scientific value and it facilitates conservation planning and the setting of priorities. By getting involved in hands-on projects, people become alert to changes in habitats. This fosters civic awareness, especially as the places where we used to find birds and butterflies disappear.
Underhill wants to strengthen groups who are aware of the value of the environment and motivated to protect wildlife and wild spaces. He wants to give them a way to participate in conservation science.
A good example of this is LepiMAP, an Virtual Museum citizen science project that has assisted researchers to detect a westward shift in many butterfly species in South Africa. Could the move be linked to climate change, pesticides, pollution or predators?
Institute and unit researchers are investigating.
But biodiversity monitoring is not only about recording the demise of species and scrambling to stave off extinctions – as important as this work is. It is also about detecting the recovery of species.
During my summer monitoring African oystercatchers, I stumbled one day, nearly stepping on a monstrously large mole snake, an egg-shape bulging just behind its neck. The snake was near a nest where on an earlier visit I had seen an egg.
I spied many more such fat mole snakes on Robben Island. Often they were trolling above the high tide mark, near where I had previously found other oystercatcher nests, inconspicuous among the shells with their cryptic, mottled eggs. More often than not, the nests were empty – and this long before the chicks were due to hatch. Indeed, we subsequently established that less than 40% of eggs hatched.
I feared the island’s many mole snakes had been breakfasting on eggs, tipping the delicate balance of nature and sending African oystercatchers spiralling back to near threatened status, where they had languished from 2004 to 2016 and also in the 1980s. But, it turns out, with the perspective of two decades of Robben Island breeding figures and citizen science data from the Biodiversity and Development Institute, that the African oystercatcher is doing well. Populations are on the rise and the birds are spreading their wings as it were – the areas where they are found have been expanding.
So what was that technique Underhill taught me for pinpointing nests, the one he also wowed the Russian researchers with 30 years ago?
Well, it works like this: When you spot a bird sitting far away, hopefully on its eggs, remember that as soon as it sees you, it’s going to try to lure you away. So, quick as a wink, you find points and objects in the landscape and draw an imaginary line through them and the bird. Then stick to that line.
Sooner rather than later the bird will see you coming and try to lead you astray. Go slowly and carefully. The eggs are really well camouflaged and you don’t want to step on them.
Keep your eye on the prize.
- This story forms part of a Roving Reporters biodiversity reporting project, supported by the Earth Journalism Network. Rio Button is a conservation biologist, commercial diver and regular correspondent for Roving Reporters. She has a Masters of Science degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town. She is also the chief conservation officer at Wildcards.