I recently finished a two week stint on beautiful Maria Island, a national park off the coast of Tasmania, to work up the data collected in the first round of the Reef Life Survey co-run by Drs. Graham Edgar and Rick Stuart-Smith at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. The Reef Life Survey network is a non-profit entity whose aim is to, “improve biodiversity conservation and the sustainable management of marine resources through the collection of high-quality biodiversity information at spatial and temporal scales beyond those possible by scientific dive teams.” They do this by utilizing a network of enthusiastic trained recreational divers who perform standardized transects at hard substrate systems worldwide. Currently there are slightly over 1800 sites in the network from Tierra del Fuego (50 S) to Svalbard (nearly 80 N), although a good number of sites are concentrated in Australia where the network was trialed over the past few years.
This is a bit of an aside to comment on a topic that is becoming increasingly relevant not only to my graduate career, but I think to ecology in general: large-scale collaborations. The days when an ecologist could just throw some tools and some PVC in a rucksack and head down to the ol’ rocky intertidal are slowly being usurped by complex and sophisticated national and international networks (even though we still use a heck of a lot of PVC).
While some might lament the death of the “backyard ecologist,” I for one welcome the change. Large-scale networks generally preserve the inference gained from local-scale experiments–after all, many are simply conglomerates of the same experiments done in a bunch of different locations–with the added benefit of being able to investigate the generality of patterns and processes in nature as a whole. And isn’t generality kind of the goal of all science? As humans, we would like to think that the natural world obeys some base set of laws that apply regardless of where you’re working or what you’re working with (even though on some dark and rainy days, I think that may not be the case).