High in the himalayan city of Thimpu, students of the Royal University of Bhutan are busy practicing for a competition that will pit them against their counterparts at universities around the world - from the United States to Australia to the Philippines.
They’re not training for any sport or athletic competition. They’re not practicing math problems, or their debating chops. Instead, they’re pulling out their mobile phones, pointing them at nearby plants, insects and other animals, and taking photos. And they’re practicing how to identify what they see.
The competition is part of a mobile gaming app called QuestaGame, which gets players outdoors to discover, learn about, map and ultimately help protect biodiversity.
“The University BioQuest started in 2017 with the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sydney University,” says Andrew Robinson, CEO and co-founder of the Canberra-based QuestaGame. “It was one of our most exciting competitions - and very close, with Sydney barely winning in the final hours.”
“The following year,” adds Robinson, “we had 20 universities, with over 70,000 sightings and identifications. This year’s competition will likely be the biggest yet.” The Centre for Biodiveristy Analysis is sponsoring the ANU bioQuest team.
The game awards scores based on the rarity of what’s found for the specific location and season, with bonus awards for players who can correctly identify their own sightings and the sightings of other players. Much of the species data, meanwhile, is shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF.org) for environmental research and conservation.
This kind of public gathering of species data, explains Donald Hobern, former Executive Director of GBIF, “has the great advantage in increasing community awareness and the skills of individual observers. Participants learn from one another.”
This learning, which includes the ability to identify and classify species, is a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable as issues such as food security, biosecurity and ecological conservation take on greater urgency. At the same time, many countries are facing a skills shortage when it comes to identifying species.
“I am the last of the entomologists who can identify moths across all the moth families in Australia,” says entomologist Ted Edwards, who recently retired from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). “[Without my knowledge] Australia is vulnerable to any new pest species that comes along.”
Which is where the University BioQuest fits in. Who knows what talents the event might foster or inspire - and not just locally, but globally?
“We’ve got highly skilled players on QuestaGame providing identifications for plants and animals half way around the world,” says Robinson. “By expanding the expert pool, the game is increasing learning; and part of the fun of the competition, after all, is seeing what your competitors find in places you’ve never been before.”
For some schools, such as the University of Adelaide, the competition has even been part of the students’ class assessment. For others, it’s just a bit fun.
But with prizes on offer for the winning participants, one thing’s certain: During the month of April, students around the world will be looking up from their books and screens to pay closer attention to the natural world around them.