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Community knowledge: a scientist's perspective

Scientist Emily Roberts discovers how critical local knowledge is for safeguarding Taranaki's coastal creatures – from pāua to dotterels.

Dotterel Defenders group photo

Communities are often ‘bitten by the science bug’ while investigating and solving locally-important problems. It's not a one-way street though: scientists also learn heaps from locals.

Emily Roberts is one such scientist, a marine biologist originally from the UK. She is involved in several Taranaki-based projects after being a scientific expert on the Waitara Kaimoana Survey in 2016.

Emily RobertsIn an interview about the project, Emily shares her journey: from learning about locally important Māori practices (tikanga) and knowledge (mātauranga), to seeing the bigger picture thanks to community collaboration and knowledge sharing.

“This project has been inspirational in terms of putting the communities at the forefront,” she says.

“The way that citizen science is commonly done is that it’s led by the scientists. They come up with a problem to be solved then the general public just helps them. This project is so different: it’s actually driven by the community in the first instance.”

This meant that different people with different areas of expertise worked together to tackle the problem. While Emily was developing the scientific side, others in the team were capturing the cultural values and local knowledge to make sure that “the science is in fitting with what needs to be answered in terms of the big picture”.

Credits: Otaraua Hapū (interview footage); Waitara Alive (stills).

Credits: Otaraua Hapū (interview footage); Waitara Alive (stills).

Continuing the journey

Now, Emily is involved in three more community research projects – including Project Hotspot, previously supported by the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform and this year by Unlocking Curious Minds.

Her newest project is Dotterel Defenders, which she co-runs with passionate locals, conservation groups and scientists. Together, they investigate what threats might be harming these endangered birds, find solutions and raise awareness to help protect the birds.

Dotterels on the beach

“There’s only about two thousand New Zealand dotterel left in the world, so our project’s purpose is to find out what is impacting them,” Emily says. “There’s a good protection programme in the Waikato and some of those birds are coming here now, so we need to protect them better here too.”

Emily explains that the project could not have come even close to where it is now without knowledge from locals, which they shared through a survey.

“We could see from the survey that there were four main types of threat, which differed between coastal areas: introduced predators, people’s pets, vehicles on the beach, and natural events like tides, storms and sand movement.

"Better knowledge about the threats at each site meant that we got a clear starting point for a hypothesis to investigate, and much quicker than scientists alone.”

Locals and scientists are now putting this knowledge into action by going to beaches and logging what they see there.

Emily on the beach

As well as finding footprints of dotterel predators such as cats, stoats and hedgehogs, locals also see tyre tracks – from quadbikes, motocross bikes or dune buggies – very close to where the birds are nesting.

The volunteers also clean up the rubbish they see on beaches they visit. Elvisa Robb, a volunteer scientist, says that they often collect as much as 80 kilograms: “And that’s just the non-recyclable rubbish like tyres and things.”

There are as many young volunteers as there are old. In eleven-year-old Leon Ord-Walton’s case, he had specifically asked his mum to take him to a gathering at Rahotu Beach.

“I really want to do more of this,” he says, after doing a beach clean-up and looking at how predator traps work. “I think it's really important that we protect these birds.”

Emily explaining an object found on the beach

Emily and her co-workers are going through the data they have all collected to understand what is likely to work – or not work – when it comes to protecting the birds. Some trends are already emerging, meaning that they can start putting knowledge into action:

“We’ve now restored 40 traps in the back dunes at Rahotu Beach, which volunteers are checking and resetting every fortnight,” Emily says.

Students from Rahotu School have created signs for their beach to let people know to stay below the high tide line in spring and summer – from August to March – because this is where the birds are nesting.

“Hopefully these tactics will help to get these cool little birds back on track.” Emily says.

“I always find it amazing how much we get done in a few months, thanks to the community’s knowledge and commitment!”

Rahotu students with their beach signs

Follow Dotterel Defenders on Facebook

Read a story about the Waitara Kaimoana Survey PSP project

Check out the Project Hotspot website and Facebook page.

Photo credits: Emily Roberts/Dotterel Defenders.

About the projects

Waitara Kaimoana Survey is co-run by Otaraua Hapū and Waitara Alive with Taranaki Regional Council scientists and locals, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform (PSP).

Dotterel Defenders logo
Dotterel Defenders is run by the Taranaki Conservationists with help and input from local schools, communities, trustees and Taranaki Regional Council scientists, with support from the Taranaki PSP.

Hotspot logoProject Hotspot is driven by Ngā Motu Marine Reserve Society, supported by scientists from Taranaki Regional Council, NatureWatch NZ and MAIN Trust NZ and run through Taranaki-based schools, with funding via the Unlocking Curious Minds Contestable fund. It previously received funding through the Taranaki PSP.

Scientists and locals collaborating around a table

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

Find out more

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