Using crowd-sourced funding to track snakes

The understanding of the interplay of movement, behaviour and physiology that biologging offers has applied relevance for a range of fields, including evolutionary ecology, wildlife conservation and behavioural ecology. In recognition of this, the Journal of Animal Ecology has an upcoming Special Feature on Biologging  (submissions due 20th September).

Unfortunately, animal-borne tags don’t come cheap. This was the problem recently-completed PhD student Ashleigh Wolfe faced during her urban reptile ecology research at Curtin University. Her solution: crowd funding! Here, Ashleigh shares some tips she learned along the way.

In today’s society, the STEM fields appear to be most exciting where they incorporate new technologies. More traditional practices, such as studying the life histories of wildlife (i.e. understanding how an animal’s behaviour or biology shapes their interactions with the environment), are fundamentally important, but aren’t usually considered an exciting area for technological development.

My name is Ashleigh Wolfe, and I am an Australian behavioural ecologist studying the interactions between people and wildlife in urban environments. I am particularly interested in how reptiles in urban areas survive (and some even thrive) amongst humans, especially when so many humans are afraid of them. A key project of my PhD thesis aimed to investigate where urban dugites (Pseudonaja affinis) go after being translocated away from private properties as ‘problem’ snakes.

dugite

Dugites have highly-toxic venom and can cause quite a stir when they turn up in an residential garden! This results in many of these animals being translocated out of urban areas.

ash with dugite

Ashleigh with a ‘problem’ dugite

Snakes are typically tracked using a Very High Frequency (VHF) tracker implanted inside the body cavity or under the skin, and using a radio antenna to follow the signal. In my study, I wanted to also incorporate Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitters, which require clear vision to the sky to communicate with satellites (i.e., can not be implanted). External attachment of VHF trackers has been tested both in the past (Ciofi and Chelazzi 1991) and more recently (Riley et al. 2017), with results of both studies in favour of the method. However, to my knowledge no published study has tested external attachment with GPS trackers. Theoretically, there are many benefits to incorporating GPS:

  • External attachment doesn’t require any recovery time post-surgery, and animals can have trackers affixed while conscious;
  • Few requirements for the attachment method makes the process very quick (around 10 minutes) and relatively cheap;
  • Allowing the GPS device to take multiple ‘fixes’ per day without the presence of a researcher saves travel time, and opens up the option to concurrently track animals in different locations; and
  • Minimising interactions with the animals in situ can result in better data stemming from more natural movements.

There are also some downsides, including technological limitations (no current demand for GPS devices small enough to efficiently track snakes) and price. After trialling a few models, I ended up using FLR-V trackers from Telemetry Solutions California at a cost of US$2,000 each.

My PhD was funded entirely from small grants that could not allow for a large-scale project at these costs. To help fund this project, I used crowd-sourced funding via Kickstarter.com, a platform typically used to help ‘kick-start’ entrepreneurial projects such as movies, games, and gadgets. In exchange for backer rewards, any member of the public can pledge money towards a project. If the project is successful (i.e. reaches 100% of its goal or more), the funds are committed and used to fund the project, while unsuccessful projects (even up to 99% pledged) are not funded. Science experiments are not typically hosted on Kickstarter, but any project that can offer backer rewards can be featured. It was a lot of work, but I managed to raise AU$6,000 (from 33 backers) towards purchasing 3 GPS trackers. It may not seem like a lot of money, but considering grants in environmental sciences are becoming more and more competitive, it’s always worth pursuing alternative funding options and reaching a new audience.

 

 

IMG_0520

Dugite with tag

If you are considering using crowd-funding to help raise money for a project, here are some tips that I learned along the way:

  1. Aim high, but not too high! Kickstarter runs on an ‘all or nothing’ system of funding to maximise the chances that a funded project actually happens. This means that you need to really think about the ideal target amount of money. While it would be awesome to raise $10,000 towards a project, if all you need is $2,000 to get going, maybe that should be your goal. If you reach your goal quickly, you can always have ‘stretch’ goals (over and above the original target), but you must justify them.
  2. Timing is key. Do your research into the best month/day/hour to launch your campaign – it counts! You will also need to set a time length for your campaign; stretching it longer can raise more money (or people might lose interest), while a quicker campaign means getting the money sooner (but you might not reach your goal in time). I received the most pledges in the first (early adopters) and final (last chancers) weeks of my campaign, so 3 or 4 weeks total is reasonable.
  3. Advertise! Kickstarter is typically a platform for projects aiming to eventually make a profit. Like any other product, you need to advertise your project.
    • Have a social media presence first such as a Facebook group or Instagram page for your project and a personal twitter account, and be very active on them! You can reach hundreds or thousands of people by sharing a link to your page, and it’s less annoying than constantly sending emails to your personal contacts.
    • Make a video for your campaign, ideally under 2 minutes in length. Explain who you are, what you want to do, how you’ll achieve it, and how your backers can help. Be creative! If your video is poorly-made or boring, nobody will watch it and learn about your awesome research.
    • Come up with interesting backer rewards. Most people will happily make a pledge in return for a neat reward. Postcards, posters, and even thanking backers in your publication can be a really unique way to acknowledge their support.
  4. You get out what you put in. Like all forms of funding, crowd-funding can work really well or not at all. The difference is that you can tip the scales in your favour by being proactive with the campaign. Although my campaign lasted only 4 weeks, I dedicated about 20 hours per week to it by sending emails and posting links. I also spent many long hours making a video (and editing it), as well as posting lots of useful information about the project on the campaign. I spent a lot of time generating interest via local community groups, members of local government, and even the newspaper! If you manage to get a good following at the start, this can have a snowball effect of backers, which will make your life so much easier.
ash tracking

Ashleigh tracking snakes in the Australian bush

Using the funds raised via Kickstarter (along with a couple other small grants), I ended up tracking 10 dugites over 2 years. I discovered that translocation negatively affected all of my study animals, and mortality in general was high (100% for translocated snakes, 50% for non-translocated snakes). My project was only small due to limited resources, but through the help of crowd-sourced funding I was able to get the conversation started.

More Info:

Ciofi, C. and Chelazzi, G. (1991). Radiotracking of Coluber viridiflavus using external transmitters. Journal of Herpetology, 25: 37–40.

Riley, J.L., Baxter-Gilbert, J.H. and Litzgus, J.D. (2017). A comparison of three external transmitter attachment methods for snakes. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 41(1): 132–139.

Wolfe, A.K., Fleming, P.A. and Bateman, P.W. (2018) Impacts of translocation on a large urban-adapted venomous snake. Wildlife Research 45, 316-324.

 

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