Citizen Science for Banana Conservation Research

As climate change effects intensified, shifting weather patterns happen more frequently. This situation causes rising trends of pest attacks in plantations, which were globally reported. This situation worsens as commercial fruit bunches with similar genetic information are more vulnerable to diseases. This problem is a primary issue for banana plantations. Therefore, breeding climate-resilient food crops including bananas are important than ever before.

Malaysia is one of the centres of origin of bananas besides Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and India. This crop is an important resource for our country’s biodiversity, conservation, and breeding studies. However, there is a paucity of information about our bananas in publicly available databases. When we discussed about wild bananas, we were clueless and had no idea where to find them. We wanted to start tracking their locations but sadly, we are a small team and lacking in resources and manpower. It was nearly impossible for us to carry out a nationwide survey on wild bananas in lowland or highland regions on our own.

When thinking about these problems, I found two possible solutions. First, is the traditional way of collecting data, in which, only scientists do the field survey of wild bananas distribution in the forests. However, the main obstacle would be it is not possible to be conducted nationwide. Second, since we are a small team working on a tight budget, we need more volunteers to collect observation data on wild bananas.

To solve these challenges, we have launched the Banana Hunter project during the Malaysia National Banana Congress 2021 to crowdsource lay people or amateur scientists who will help record observation data by photographing geo-located banana species using our own developed mobile “MusaHunter” apps. Project participants will learn basic curation and banana taxonomy skills – for example, scientific names of bananas, and how banana leaves, fruit bunches, and flowers look like – in small workshops. What would excite them the most is the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned when they are in the field.

Allowing members of the public to help scientists collect and analyse scientific data is an alternative research approach, called Citizen Science. By spreading the responsibility for data collection across dozens, or hundreds of the public, the bigger scale research projects become more feasible and achievable. Of course, Citizen Science is not without drawbacks, for instance, unskilled citizen scientists may introduce errors in the data collected. However, if citizen scientists are well-trained, and data collection is done responsibly, the created high-quality datasets can be more massive in volume than the amount that scientists could collect on their own.

There are lots of resources available to help the public get involved with Citizen Science projects. Some of these are publicized on iNaturalist, a successful crowdsourcing Citizen Science platform. This platform hosts a variety of Citizen Science projects such as biodiversity, astronomy, social science, and biology disciplines. The platform has recorded 15 million observations of wildlife from all over the world. Using these rich datasets, scientists can study and publish papers in different areas including wildlife distribution patterns, migration, and morphological changes.

Citizen scientists on the field collecting information related to the banana species using our “MusaHunter” apps

Citizen Science has changed the dynamics of research and the ideological belief of ‘Science is for scientists only’. From the historical perception of scientists being associated as ‘exclusive’ and disintegrated from the community, the current trend has shifted towards engaging more public to participate in research. In our case, the public has an opportunity to help in banana conservation and breeding studies. All these prove that ‘Science is not for scientists only’.

 

Note: Author is a senior lecturer at Centre for Biotechnology Research for Agriculture (CEBAR), Universiti Malaya.

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