How your photos could help save an ecosystem
JUL 21, 2021 | Written and screenhots by Thobile Dlamini and Anisha Dayaram.
Above: Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) by Anisha Dayaram
In the age of selfies and TikTok, most photos are just for self-fulfilment. But wouldn’t you like your photos to do so much more? By sharing your holiday snaps and pictures taken during your hike, road trip, game drive or field outing, you could help to save an ecosystem or habitat.
How does this work?
Projects like VEGMAPhoto on iNaturalist depend on landscape photographs of vegetation shared by any citizen scientist, such as yourself. The VEGMAPhoto project is curated by the VEGMAP Project team at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and is one of the citizen science tools contributing towards ecosystem assessments. These ecosystem assessments highlight threatened ecosystems. This forms the basis for biodiversity management and conservation.
But there are so many ecosystems that have not been well documented in South Africa. That means that a poorly-described endangered ecosystem is waiting for you to photograph and share your photo.
Above: Photos of vegetation communities required for the VEGMAPhoto project.
The National Vegetation Map of South Africa is a national map of the 459 different types of vegetation that represent the diversity of plant communities in our country. So when you upload your photo, you provide three vital pieces of information to the map:
- You add to the photographic catalogue of communities of plants that occur within a vegetation type;
- You help the curators to verify whether the communities in your photo matches the description for the vegetation type; and
- When you tag a species, that taxon can be added to the species list for that vegetation type.
The VEGMAPhoto project: What has been achieved to date
Nearly three years has passed since the establishment of the project. At that stage, only 34 observations had been made. By the start of 2021, 336 observations had been captured over the three years. Today there are 600 observations, 285 species identified, 70 individuals partaking in species identifications and 22 individuals making observations.
Although citizen scientists have been helpful in building the platform, there is opportunity for much more participation and involvement.
Here’s where YOUR help is needed.
Out of 459 vegetation types, we only have photographs of communities for around 80 types on VEGMAPhoto. These 80 vegetation types are mostly found in the Nama-Karoo, fynbos and forest biomes. The savanna, desert, grassland, Indian Ocean coastal belt, Albany thicket and succulent Karoo biomes have very few to no photographs. In total, over 350 vegetation types have not been photographed as yet, and therefore still need to be added to the project.
That’s why your help as a citizen scientist (and hopefully a BotSoc member) is of such value. Take a look at the map below, which shows the distribution of photographs in this project. Darker green indicates vegetation types with the most photographs while white indicates types that have not yet been tagged in the project.
Above: Current distribution of photographs in this project.
How can you contribute?
If you have computer access or a cell phone which can connect up to the internet, you can contribute to the project. All you have to do is take a photo of a vegetation landscape and upload it to the VEGMAPhoto project on the iNaturalist website or mobile app. Photos of vegetation habitats can be taken from wherever you are in South Africa. The shared photo must represent the vegetation types of South Africa. Everyone is encouraged to join and help grow this platform for the sake of ecosystem conservation. Guidelines on how to join or share your photos are available on iNaturalist under the VEGMAPhoto project.
How to upload your photo step by step:
Some recommendations and guidelines
The project is reliant on photographs from citizen scientists like you. So clearer photos enable identifiers to move your photographs easily up to research grade. Photos representing communities of plants that define the vegetation type and show dominant species within the vegetation type are important for compatibility with iNaturalist, but focus should always be on the habitat. Make sure you add the photograph to VEGMAPhoto (s. Afr) under projects, add the vegetation type, add the biome you think you are in, and tag whether you think the landscape is well managed or degraded.
Above: An example of an uploaded photo showing grass and shrub communities
Above: An example of the observation fields that observers will be prompted to complete
Calling all adventurers
So if you are on your adventures or a field excursion, remember to take a few landscape photos of the ecosystem and tag VEGMAPhoto (s. Afr). If you have photos with coordinates but no time to upload them, you can email the photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the SANBI team will upload them on your behalf.
Please share your photos and help us build a catalogue of vegetation communities on the vegetation types of South Africa.
Our guest bloggers
Thobile Dlamini is an earth science and conservation ecology lecturer at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria West Campus. She holds a Master’s degree in Nature Conservation, specifically in savanna ecology from TUT. She was involved with the SANBI VEGMAP project as a research assistant for six months, where she realised the need for public participation in the VEGMAPhoto project.
Anisha Dayaram is a vegetation ecologist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) where she is responsible for curating and refining the National Vegetation Map and its associated products under the VEGMAP Project. This project benefits from the contributions from a wide network of collaborators and work is now taking place to expand this network into the citizen science space to make the vegetation map accessible to a wider audience.
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