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Project Manta – Case study 1

Learn how an Australian citizen science program, "Project Manta" has helped to protect manta rays around the world. Dr. Kathy Townsend explains.
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In this section, you’ll learn how the Australian citizen science programme, Project Manta has helped to protect manta rays within Australia and globally. Project Manta started in 2006 and tapped into the enthusiasm of everyday people to gather data to answer big research questions. Reaching up to five metres from wingtip to wingtip. These gentle giants like a stinging barb, feed on plankton and move hundreds of kilometres across ocean basins. Manta Rays are slow growing, long lived, late to reproduce, and produce only one young every two to three years. And while that the basis of a multimillion dollar eco tourism industry worldwide, their biology makes them susceptible to overfishing.
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When we started the study, very little was known about the biology and ecology of the species, so much so that they were listed as data deficient in the IUCN Red List for endangered species. IUCN stands for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and is the body that ranks the potential risk of extinction of all the world’s known species, both on land and at sea. The very first task we had ahead of us was to try to determine how many manta rays could be found in Australian waters. Fortunately, manta rays have a unique spot pattern on their bellies that allows us to identify individuals.
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These natural spot patterns are a type of tag, which allows us to track them through both space and time. However, to do that, we need lots of eyes and cameras in the water, taking photos of underbellies of manta rays and submitting them to a central location. We approached dive shops and resorts across Australia, asking for Manta belly shots. Our citizen science programme has been an important component in gathering photo ID records of reef manta rays along the east coast of Australia. To date, over 1200 individual manta rays have been identified from 6380 records, with 65% of individuals being sighted on more than one occasion.
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Citizen Scientists have provided original photographic record for approximately 67% of the manta rays, as well as 53% of the reciting records. These records have allowed us to determine distribution patterns of both the reef and the oceanic manta rays. Identifying key feeding cleaning reproduction locations and allowing us to estimate population numbers at key manta aggregation sites. Images have also alerted us to their amazing healing capacity and provided us with evidence for the oldest known manta ray - close to 50 years of age. It’s also provided us with evidence of the longest migration for the species over 1150 kilometres from point to point.
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Citizen Scientists have also alerted us to the world’s very first pink manta ray, known as Inspector Clouseau, so named after the movie Pink Panther. So how have we been so successfully and engaging with citizen scientists? Well, we have a range of initiatives to encourage citizen scientists to participate in Project Manta. These include things such as a well maintained and regularly updated social media presence across all the various social media platforms. We also provide manta ray naming rights for participants who discover an animal that’s new to the database.
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Project Manta also has branded T shirts and stickers, which we use to award major contributions, such as provision of the largest number of photographs or important historical photographs that are provided to us. And social media competitions such as the ones held to identify the 1,000th mantaray for the East Australians database. The contribution of citizen science to Australia’s manta ray research has been invaluable citizen science data, combined with researcher generated data as contributed to getting manta ray listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List for endangered species and protected both within Australia and across the globe.
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Citizen Scientists extended the coverage in both space and time of the manta research trips, which are in their own right, normally limited to a very few key aggregation sites each year. Public contributions of archival images some taken decades ago, as helped project Manta investigate important questions about longevity, changes in habitat use and population structure. Engaging with citizen scientists has provided an ideal platform for disseminating research findings to a broad audience, which in turn has led to increase protection for this species both in Australia and globally.

Manta rays are gentle giants, reaching up to five meters from wing tip to wing tip. However, until Project Manta started in Australia in 2006, very little was know about the local population. Discover how citizen scientists and researchers joined forces to help protect manta rays both within Australia and globally.

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