New worm discovered by citizen scientists

By Alex Pike August 7, 2013
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A new species of flatworm has been discovered in WA by amateurs using a social networking website.

TWO AMATEUR SCIENTISTS HAVE discovered a new species of flatworm by posting the photograph to a social networking website.

Fred and Jean Hort photographed the carnivorous worm in Wandoo National Park, east of Perth in Western Australia, and submitted it to BowerBird – a website developed by Museum Victoria that allows citizens to contribute information about Australian flora and fauna.

“There are only a few flatworms known from that area and this one has never been seen before, let alone described, so it’s a very exciting find,” says Dr Ken Walker, an entomologist at Museum Victoria.

New worm discovered by amateur scientists

Fred and Jean, who have been volunteers for the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation for 17 years, found the worm on a granite outcrop underneath a small sheet of rock.

“It’s just a bit of luck, really,” says Fred. “We like fossicking around, and the granite outcrops are good fossicking places where you’ll find many creatures to photograph…one of those was the flatworm.”

Fred and Jean have already contributed to the discovery of around 15 plant species, six of which are named after them, however neither of the two has a background in botany or entomology. Fred says they are simply citizen scientists who “follow up on all our natural interests”.

Identifying new species in Australia

BowerBird, which was launched in June in collaboration with the Atlas of Living Australia, is a platform for citizen scientists to upload their photos, videos and sound recordings of plants and animals, which are then discussed by the science community, including experts. The couple uploaded their photograph to BowerBird, and it was passed around the network.

“They had a GPS coordinate,” explains Ken. “So immediately the expert was able to see the dot on the map and say, ‘There’s nothing like that known from this area, let alone the rest of Australia.'”

While BowerBird has the potential to be a great tool for the identification of new species, Ken says its primary purpose is to provide better distribution maps for the entire range of Australian species.

“We’re after as much data for common and unknown species [as possible],” Ken told Australian Geographic. “If you’ve got 100 or 1000 records spread across the country and in certain areas, you can really determine what the species needs.”