Are you back from a safari and not sure what animal you photographed? Did you take a nice snapshot of a frog or a butterfly or an unidentified creepy-crawly? Did you see a bird displaying interesting behaviour or an animal in an unusual location? If you answered yes to any of these questions then it's time to become a citizen scientist!

Did you know?

The second Southern African Bird Atlas Project has received over five million records from citizen scientists.

In the past, identifying a frog, a butterfly or rare mammal that you saw while visiting South Africa would have involved buying and wading through a pile of field guides. Even then the result wouldn't have been guaranteed, especially when it came to little brown birds, butterflies or insects. 

These days there is a simpler way to identify the intriguing creatures you encounter: you can just submit your photo to a 'virtual museum' and an expert will identify the creature for you. At the same time, you'll be contributing to knowledge about the distribution of the species.

The University of Cape Town's Animal Demography Unit (ADU) is the driving force behind some of the most prominent citizen science initiatives in South Africa. Over the past few years it has created a number of virtual museums, including its flagship MammalMAP website. 

Whether you photographed some lions lazing under a tree in the Kruger National Park, a rare black-footed cat somewhere in the Northern Cape or a tiny little mouse in the Drakensberg, you can submit photos to this project and each one will add to an ever-growing database of knowledge about the animals' distribution and habits. Pictures from camera traps are also very welcome, especially when they're of nocturnal creatures whose distribution range is poorly known.

Besides MammalMAP, there are virtual museums for frogs, butterflies, dragon- and damselflies, reptiles, weaver nests, scorpions, spiders, birds with odd plumage, and even echinoderms like starfish, sea urchins and brittle stars.

The ADU has its roots in ornithology, so it's not surprising that there are many ways to get involved in citizen science if you are a bird fanatic. For example, you can contribute to the South African Bird Ringing Unit, Coordinated Waterbird Counts and Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts. Serious birders can also log their sightings with the ground-breaking second Southern African Bird Atlas Project or its smaller cousin, My Birdpatch, for people who prefer to just keep track of the birds in and around their garden. 

The ADU also publishes the e-journal, Ornithological Observations, which welcomes submissions from amateurs and professionals who observe interesting bird behaviour.

Besides the Virtual Tree Herbarium, the ADU currently does not have active virtual museums for plants, but it’s a great idea to post your botanical pics to iSpot. The photos are identified by fellow users of the site, rather than by dedicated experts, but you can be sure that the participants usually know what they’re talking about. iSpot, an international identification website, also takes photos of birds, reptiles, fish and other creatures.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Animal Demography Unit
Tel: +27 (0)21 650 2423
Email: adu-info@uct.ac.za