Behind the Science: Citizen Scientists Help Determine the Distribution of Freshwater Whiprays
Author: Natasha Hynes
The giant freshwater whipray (Urogymnus polylepis) is a threatened ray species that can live in saltwater, freshwater, or estuarine habitats. Giant freshwater whiprays occur throughout Southeast Asia but its full range has not yet been determined. Where there are known populations, the freshwater whipray is the target of small-scale fisheries for consumption and ornamental purposes. It also faces human-induced threats such as habitat degradation. An important step in the conservation of a species is determining where it lives. Conservation policies vary from region to region and knowing all the places a species occurs helps gain them legal protection. Scientists enlisted the help of fishers and citizens to help them explore the range of the freshwater whipray in Myanmar.
Image Source: Wikipedia
Between 2017 and 2018, landing surveys were conducted around Myanmar. This means that the scientists looked at the species that fishers brought to shore (with the fishers’ permission) and took note of any time they came across a ray. They took a photo for species identification and measured the size of the body, the weight, and the sex of the ray.. They also collected information on the boat and gear type used that caught the ray.
The scientists published a post on social media asking the citizens of Myanmar for any photos and videos they had of rays in the area. From these photos, scientists gained further evidence of the presence of freshwater whiprays. One citizen submitted a video of a female with two pups and from this footage, the scientists were able to make morphological observations about the babies of this species that had never been made before!
This study demonstrates the value of citizen scientists. The citizens of Myanmar were not only able to help the researchers of this study further the knowledge of the range of freshwater whiprays, but they also made a new discovery about the pups of this species! Using social media is an extremely useful tool to gather information on data-poor species. Make sure you document all of your adventures for future scientific studies!
Grant, M.I., Bicknell, A., Htut, T., Maung, A., Maung, T., Myo Myo, K., Rein, T., San, M.K., White, W.T., Ya, K.Z. and Mizrahi, M., Market surveys and social media provides confirmation of the Endangered giant freshwater whipray Urogymnus polylepis in Myanmar. Journal of Fish Biology. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/jfb.15073