Citizen Science: Follow the steps of Charles Darwin and glimpse into cowslip flowers this Spring!

We’re spotlighting the Looking for Cowslips citizen science campaign! Organiser Tsipe Aavik shares more about this citizen science project, the findings so far and how you can take part in this campaign.

If you’re interested in getting involved with a cowslip survey this Spring, you can find out more here!

You can also read the related article in Journal of Ecology, as part of the BES journal’s Citizen Science Special Feature.


Introduce your Citizen Science campaign

Our study focused on examining the patterns of heterostyly in cowslips (Primula veris). The meaning of heterostyly, is expressed in the reciprocal positioning of anthers and stigmas in different morphs (S-morph and L-morph; see the image below). This feature was very puzzling to Charles Darwin! After thorough observations and experiments, he realised the adaptive significance of two floral morphs in cowslips and other Primula species is to promote cross-pollination between plant individuals.

In cowslip populations, about half of the individuals of cowslip (Primula veris) have flowers with a short style (S-morphs or “thrums”), while the other half of individuals produce flowers with a long style (L-styles or “pins”). Recent discoveries have suggested that the loss and fragmentation of cowslip’s preferred habitats, traditionally managed grasslands, may lead to deviations from equal morph frequencies. This, in turn, can reduce reproductive success of plants and jeopardises their future viability.

We were interested in the role of cowslip population size and landscape contexts (e.g. the presence of grasslands) as proxies for habitat loss and fragmentation on the morph frequencies of cowslips, which may indirectly indicate the “well-being” and future projections of those plant populations. We asked people to look for wild cowslip populations and record the morph type of a hundred cowslip individuals, wherever this was possible (as small populations often had fewer individuals).

In 2019, we obtained data about the morph type of >220,000 cowslip individuals from >1,700 locations across Estonia. We found that in smaller populations, morph frequencies were indeed more likely to deviate than in larger cowslip populations. A very interesting finding was that there were significantly more S-morphs than L-morphs in the dataset. This observation has only raised new questions and hypothesis, which is why we are carrying out the cowslip observation throughout Europe in 2021.

Why did you choose to use citizen science data?

First, we wanted to obtain an overview of the patterns of cowslip heterostyly from many plant populations from as broad spatial scale and landscape contexts across Estonia as possible, representing a wide gradient of habitat fragmentation.

Second, as conservation biologists, we consider the applied aspects of our research highly important and also aim to increase environmental awareness. The topic of our citizen science campaign enabled us to turn people’s attention to so many other aspects relevant for conservation besides this peculiar reproductive trait of cowslips. For example, because morph frequencies tend to deviate in response to habitat fragmentation, we could emphasise the negative consequences of grassland loss for biodiversity. Because heterostyly is an evolutionary adaptation to insect-pollination, we stressed the importance of pollinating insects for securing viable wildflower populations.

In cowslip populations, two morphologically different types of individuals can be found: S-morphs (with a short style, five anthers are visible from above; on the left) and L-morphs (flowers with a long style visible from above, while anthers are hidden inside the corolla; on the right).

Would you have been able to do this study without using citizen science?

No! We would not have been able to obtain such a good coverage of data, i.e. basically from every corner of Estonia, and such a high number of observations.

In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of citizen science?

The strength certainly is the exceptional amount of data from a vast number of locations. In addition, a well-communicated citizen science campaign with easily understandable tasks can achieve so much more than just unprecedented amount of data, such as the cure against “plant blindness” and communication of topics related to the effects global change on biodiversity, as we could observe based on the impressions of the participants of our campaign. 

There are certainly many challenges in citizen science projects, which one does not encounter in typical scientific experiments. A citizen science project needs to achieve an optimal balance between being able to engage many observers on the one hand, and the scientific integrity of collected data on the other hand. Of course, we would like to obtain as many observations as possible (otherwise we could do it ourselves), but the data should also be applicable for answering the specific scientific question. Yet, the more difficult the task is, the less observers we are likely to engage. It can be quite a challenge to solve this paradox. As researchers, we would always like to obtain as accurate data as possible, do some extra measurements, collect additional environmental data, double-check some observations etc. In a citizen science project, however, one has to be ready to accept these tradeoffs, and make compromises between the desired level of detail and simplicity to be able to engage people.

L-morph cowslips (Primula Veris).

Citizen science data can sometimes criticised as “lesser quality” or “untrustworthy”. Was this also a concern of yours or did you come across this in your review process?

As a researcher, one understandably wants to be sure that the data is trustworthy. When I use data from thousands of unknown observers most of whom have no background in ecology nor experiments and scientific observations, there is certainly some uncontrolled amount of variation, which makes me cautious. Indeed, I would be lying if I said that we did not have any doubts. We aimed to minimise this uncontrolled variation already during planning and designing the project (e.g. clearly expressed tasks and instructions). In addition, we set some specific criteria for the observation to be included in data analysis. Useful comments from the reviewers helped to further improve the soundness of data used for the final analysis. Thus, I believe that to certain extent it is possible to minimise the risks of low-quality data.

What do you think is needed to move the field of citizen science forward?

This project was my first experience in conducting a citizen science project, thus my thoughts may not be generalisable and can depend on the context of a specific research environment, but I have some thoughts, which I would like to share. It would be interesting to learn about the experience of other researchers who are implementing citizen science approaches for scientific analyses.

Cooperation. I see a great potential in engaging citizens in scientific research, both for science as well as for increasing people’s awareness of environmental issues and of scientific worldview in general. In order to fulfill these aims, we as researchers need to step out from our usual bubble (or so-called “ivory tower”). We need to reach out to people somehow. We need to learn ways of communication, which are perhaps not so common in scientific everyday life. Collaborating with environmental NGOs, who often have excellent communication skills and good networks, can also help a lot in reaching out to people. We need to collaborate with schoolteachers who are usually warmly welcoming new ideas to enrich the usual curricula with scientific exercises. We have to collaborate with other researchers within and outside of our disciplines to use the full potential of citizen science and empower each other.

Communication. Implementing a successful citizen science initiative and engaging public needs excellent and tireless communication in many different media channels, including social media. It requires time and willingness to “translate” scientific topics into well understandable stories. Also, the user-friendliness and design of citizen science tools can be immensely important. To gain attention, we need to “compete” with all kinds of other information, advertisement and distractions. In this competition, we need the help of communication specialists, designers, social scientists and psychologists.

Enthusiasm. All of the before-mentioned activities require a lot of enthusiasm to carry on regardless of intense and time-consuming communication to non-scientific audiences and a potential danger of lagging behind in the scientific career due to high efforts invested in citizen science actions. But then it is also very rewarding to reach exciting scientific results and to obtain positive feedback from the observers, which balances these tradeoffs.

Time and money. A well-planned citizen science initiative requires time, devotion and a huge communication effort. This, in turn, cannot run solely on enthusiasm. However, I have a feeling that at the moment, many of the citizen science initiatives are enthusiasm-based and no suitable funding mechanisms currently exist for these kind of projects. Citizen science may not be considered as “real science” and may therefore not be eligible for funding from traditional research programs. Citizen science is also not a typical environmental awareness raising action. Thus it seems to fall somewhere between and works largely on enthusiasm, but is therefore also in danger of temporal instability and incoherencies.

Observations of cowslip flowers is a great opportunity for engaging young children with the natural world. Photo: Kaarel Kaisel.

When and how did you first become interested in citizen science?

A couple of years ago, when our population genetic study of cowslips led us to exploring the potential effects of heterostyly on genetic patterns, we were thinking with other fellow ecologists that heterostyly would in fact make a nice system for a citizen science initiative. Yet, none of us had the power and resources to implement such an initiative. A few months later, Estonian Fund for Nature invited us to join a brainstorm on potential topics for a citizen science campaign within the frames of another larger project, which aimed at facilitating communication between conservation practitioners, researchers and the broader society. Conservationists from Estonian Fund for Nature became immediately very fond of the idea to examine patterns of heterostyly. This is where our fruitful collaboration started.

Have you participated in citizen science projects yourself?

Citizen science is still quite a new thing in Estonia. I myself have taken part in “classical” bird-watching campaigns.

What is your favourite citizen science project or what would your ideal citizen science project be?

An ideal citizen science project would be positively engaging, educating and bringing excitement to both researchers and observers.

How can people get involved?

You can find out more about contributing towards this citizen science project on the BES Citizen Science page. In the UK, cowslips flower from April-May, so why not get involved this Spring? There is also an app available to download from Plantlife – to help you record your survey findings!

If you’re interested in helping to organise a cowslip campaign in your area, then find out how to join the survey team here.

You can also keep up to date with the latest news from the Looking for Cowslips project on Twitter and Facebook.

Tsipe Aavik University of Tartu, Estonia


You can read the related research article on Journal of Ecology: Landscape context and plant population size affect morph frequencies in heterostylous Primula veris—Results of a nationwide citizen‐science campaign

This article was part of a British Ecological Society Special Feature on Citizen Science. You can also visit our Citizen Science Hub, to find out more about the other featured projects.

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