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Citizen Science Champion To Receive McGovern Award

July 24, 2018

Dan Rubenstein with his wife and scoutsBehavioral ecologist and Sigma Xi member Dan Rubenstein is changing the game of animal conservation with the power of citizen science and big data. Rubenstein will receive Sigma Xi’s 2018 John P. McGovern Science and Society Award and speak about his research October 27 at the Society’s Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference. The award carries an honorarium of $5,000 and a commemorative medal.

Rubenstein, of Princeton University, studies the Grevy’s zebra in Kenya, an endangered species with a population of approximately 2,800 in that country. They were overhunted and outcompeted for water and vegetation over the last 50 years because livestock producers wanted the natural resources only for their animals.  

To gain citizen support, Rubenstein and his collaborators hired local people as scouts to observe zebras. Scouting provided good income, which convinced communities to share their landscape with the equids. 

In 2016, 150 people participated in the first Great Grevy’s Rally. They drove the zebras’ range and took photos of all the Grevy’s zebras they saw, producing 40,000 images. In January 2018, 250 people participated in the second rally and captured 60,000 images.

“By working with people and making them partners in the process of gathering data, they actually believe the numbers,” Rubenstein said. This makes a difference when developing conservation policy.

A computer program reads the photos to find an animal. Then software that Rubenstein helped develop with computer scientists, Wildbook, analyzes the data, determines if the animal is known or unknown, and records a zebra’s sightings by using its stripes as a natural barcode. 

“You get a much fuller picture of the dynamics of the population, and a better understanding of what might be causing problems in relation with people,” Rubenstein said, “but also in terms of what is going to benefit them.” 

Photo caption:

Dan Rubenstein, third from left, is director of the Program for Environmental Studies and professor of zoology at Princeton University. He studies the endangered Grevy’s zebra in Kenya. He is pictured with his wife Nancy and members of the Samburu tribe who scout for zebras. (Photo courtesy of Victor Kasii, @mpalalive.)