Science Interviews

Interview

Mon, 23rd Sep 2013

'Splatter Spotting' on UK Roads

Sarah Perkins, Cardiff University

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One reason why people get involved in citizen science is to try and help solve problems that they see around them, and one project doing just that is Project Splatter, which tracks UK roadkill - it sounds a bit grisly but the team behind it hope that their data will improve animal conservation in the future. Kate Lamble caught up with one of the founders, Sarah Perkins, from Cardiff University.

Sarah -   Project Splatter is a citizen science research project that is collating Project Splatter LogoUK wildlife roadkill using social media.  So, our citizen scientists are tweeting when they see a squashed badger or a fox, or anything smaller than mouse and letting us know about it.  We collate this data and we give feedback to our community of citizen scientists.  So, why are we doing it?  It’s because there is actually no year-round survey of wildlife roadkill in the UK.  We have snapshots which have revealed interesting patterns, but we don’t know what happens year-round.  So, we want to know where the wildlife roadkill is, what it is, and when it happens.  And then ultimately, we hope to be able to reduce that wildlife roadkill.

Kate -   So, what do the snapshots tell us?  How much is a problem is roadkill for the UK’s wildlife?

Sarah -   Well, we’ve only been running since February of this year and we hope to run for another 2 years.  But in the 6 months or so that we’ve been running, our citizen scientists that we call Splatter Spotters have reported 3,300 data points to us.  So, we know that it’s quite a problem for our UK wildlife.  Our top most spotted animals include the badger, the rabbit, the fox, and the hedgehog has just started to appear in there.  So, we know that some of our favourite mammals are up there in the top species that a road killed.

Kate -   You mentioned hedgehogs and badgers there.  Those are relatively for UK wildlife quite large animals.  Is it the big ones that tend to get spotted?  Do we tend to miss the shrews and things like that?

Sarah -   Yes, we may well do.  The nice thing about running this as a citizen science project is not only do our Splatter Spotters report data to us.  They question us.  So, on Twitter and Facebook, we’ve been asked questions, “Hey, what are you guys going to do about observer bias?”  aren’t we just reporting the things we want to report?  That could be, so there could be some observer bias.  So, what we have to do is back that up with work by some of our research scientists where we are actually driving long routes and verifying which data we see.  And looking to see which species aren’t reported.

Kate -   Why do you think people get involved in these sorts of projects?  Why are people so keen to share their data and what they see with scientists?

Sarah -   Yeah, it’s interesting.  I think people see that by reporting something to us, that it’s potentially very sad driving past a dead fox on the road.  Nobody really likes to see that.  They're turning something rather sad into a positive, in that we might be able to mitigate against some of those roadkill death.  So, people are really interested in seeing what we can do with those data.

Kate -   You mentioned you've got 3,000 data points and that things like hedgehogs are just starting to appear.  Why would things like hedgehogs being killed on the roads, not be a constant year-round?

Sarah -   Well actually, we think there's something happening with hedgehogs this year where we’ve had this quite nice dry summer.  Hedgehogs may have found it difficult to find food.  What we do with our reports, every week, we feedback to our community of scientists by doing something called the Splatter Report.  It was only in the last 2 months that hedgehogs even came in the top 5 of that Splatter Report.  So, we’ve really noticed this exponential increase.  And so, we think we’re picking up this behavioural pattern where they're having to search for more food.  That's putting them into contact with the roads more frequently, they're ranging further, and that could be what's producing the greater number of roadkill seasonally.

Kate -   Is it a good or a bad sign that animals are being seen on this Splatter Report?  I mean, I know it must look bad, but does an increased number mean that there are more of them about in the first place?

Sarah -   It might do, but there are a lot of wildlife surveys that go on as well.  So, we have quite a good idea of the abundance of some species in the UK.  With the hedgehogs, we know some great work by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species that hedgehogs are actually in decline.  We used to have in the order of tens of millions in the UK and now, we’ve got below a million.  So, the fact that we’re seeing more on the roads isn’t necessarily an indication that that species is increasing in abundance.  It could be that it’s actually more threatened.

Kate -   If it’s a potential indicator of diminishing population, what can we do?  Can these reports in some way help us feed back into the loop of conservation?

Sarah -   That's what we hope.  We run this as an open database.  So, anybody who’s interested in the data can contact us and we will send it.  So currently, we do send our records to biological record centres and if the Wildlife Trust’s are interested can have data.  The birding organisations and a lot of the badger groups are interested in our data too.  And actually recently, one of the badger groups contacted me because if they get a female badger in the spring that is found over on the road, their volunteers will immediately go out and search the area and look for the badger cubs to rehabilitate them because of course, without the mother, those cubs won’t survive.

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