August 21, 2018, BY Matt Hughes

DeeAnn Reeder is one of the few animal researchers to have ever worked in South Sudan, where longstanding civil conflict has recently flared up again. Over the past 10 years, the Bucknell University biology and animal behavior professor has made multiple excursions deep into this war-torn but lush and biologically diverse nation, seeking images of rare animals like the recently documented forest elephant, elusive African golden cat and frequently trafficked tree pangolin.

Now, she's inviting you to join her in uncovering the mysteries of this rich and little-studied ecosystem, where deep Congolese forests come crashing into the grasslands of the East African savanna. But you don't need to pack your suitcase for this trip, or even look away from your computer screen.

Through a new online project she's launched with wildlife conservation group Fauna & Flora International, Reeder is harnessing the collective brain power of the public to identify nearly a half-million photographs of the South Sudan's animal inhabitants. Anyone can join the research project as a citizen-scientist through the nonprofit web portal Zooniverse. || Click here to join the survey (no login required).

The images users are cataloguing come from wildlife cameras that Reeder, one of the world's foremost experts on mammals, and her collaborators in South Sudan began setting up in 2015, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Woodtiger Fund. Reeder hopes they provide a glimpse into the lush biodiversity of the region, which has captured her fascination since a humanitarian project first took her to the country more than a decade ago.

"We tend to think that we already know everything about what animals live where, and that's just absolutely not true yet," she said. "There are real gaps in our understanding of mammal diversity and biodiversity in general. That's one of the things that drove me to South Sudan: Here was a place that — for reasons of decades of conflict — had very little scientific exploration."

Professor DeeAnn Reeder has been documenting wildlife in South Sudan for a decade. Photo by Bill Cardoni

The site presents volunteer users with images and asks them to identify the animals they see by selecting from a list of common species in the region, with information provided to help discriminate between similar species. Each image will be shown to 12 different people, and if all agree on the wildlife species, the identification is confirmed for that image. Additional information such as behaviors observed and animal group size add to the richness and value of the data.

Eyes On Conservation
More than 1,000 volunteers have joined the effort so far, and together have catalogued more than 75,000 images, yielding results that have already revised earlier assumptions about the area's ecology. "We've already found eight species of large mammals not previously recorded in the region," Reeder said. "They were found in an area that suffers from heavy poaching that is exacerbated by conflict in the area."

Her collaborators include current and former Bucknell students. While she no longer takes them to South Sudan due to the conflict, Reeder has brought student research assistants with her on field work in the neighboring and more stable nation of Uganda. Students also assisted in some of the early photo sorting, and Laura Kurpiers M'16 did most of the coding to assemble the website.

"She's really the brainchild behind the whole thing, and she's worked with me in South Sudan before," Reeder said.

The study will contribute to a better understanding of the region's ecosystem as well as more specific research goals, including estimating the size of the area's chimpanzee population, and could eventually lead to Reeder and her students developing a first-ever field guide for South Sudan. She also hopes that highlighting the nation's rich biodiversity will lead to greater conservation efforts there.

"We want to understand the biodiversity here because it's so extraordinary," Reeder said. "We would like to show the government and global conservation partners how diverse this region is, and thus, its need for greater protection."