Turner of chaos into order … BDI interviews citizen scientist Bernardine Altenroxel

Bernardine Altenroxel has recently graduated cum laude with a BSc(Hons) in Geography from the University of South Africa (UNISA). So, with her studies behind her for the time being, BDI sent her a new assignment, with a series of questions relating to citizen science. Bernie has contributed more than 4,000 records to the Virtual Museum; insects are her main interest with 3,000 contributions to LepiMAP and 500 to OdonataMAP.

Degrees from UNISA are underpinned by great feats of determination and persistence. Congratulations to citizen scientist Bernadine Altenroxel on the award of a BSc(Hons) in May this year

Bernardine Altenroxel does “disaster management”, the business of turning chaos into order.  She says: “If there is anything my line of work has taught me, it is to never take a single day for granted. Any given day has the potential to descend into utter chaos – from accidents, to fires, to floods. If disaster management has taught me about bringing order back from disorder, biomapping has taught me about the need for balance and harmony in the natural environment. One speaks to the other, for without balance and harmony in the natural environment, disorder will inevitably follow; within disorder, balance and harmony need to be restored.”

BDI: Bernie, how did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

In 2009, I had been going through a really rough time and felt the need to get away on my own for a few hours to clear my head. Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve was, and remains, one of my favourite places and this seemed like the ideal place for me to gain clarity on what I should do with my life. There had been profound and abrupt changes in my life which I needed to grasp, and the tranquillity of Lekgalameetse was sure to help me think clearly … plus provide me with the opportunity to test out my recently bought digital SLR camera. On a bright mid-winters day in 2009, I entered Lekgalameetse and to my absolute delight found the solitude I so craved. Besides the Reserve staff, there was not another person that I encountered whilst there. Little did I know it then, but this day would serve as a catalyst which would see me embark on exciting journey of learning and discovery, and entry into the exciting world of citizen science.

The Malta Waterfall at Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve where my journey into the world of citizen science originated.

As I sat beside the Malta Waterfall, deep in thought, a butterfly lazily drifting around in a shaft of sunlight caught my attention. It was unlike any butterfly I could recall having seen before, and I couldn’t help but watch as it landed on a nearby leaf. Barely breathing, I carefully stood up and tried to take a photograph, but the butterfly lifted off the leaf and started to circle again. Dejected at the missed opportunity, I sat down again, but could not help watching as the butterfly fluttered around and then settled on the end of the same leaf again. Eventually I managed to take a photograph of the butterfly. Little did I know that this would be the first of many happy hours spent photographing butterflies. For many months I puzzled over the identity of the butterfly. I just couldn’t get it off my mind. Internet searches yielded nothing and back then I had no books to use as a reference. This single record would eventually serve as the catalyst which would see me drawn into the world of citizen science. The curiosity over the butterfly would just not go away. Eventually, I submitted the record to a citizen science project and finally found the answer I had been looking for. The butterfly was a common mother-of-pearl butterfly. More butterfly records soon followed.

One of the decisions I had taken back in 2009, as I sat beside the Malta Waterfall, was to study further. Having enrolled with UNISA in 2011 for an environmental management degree, I centred my Ecotourism module project (undertaken in 2014) around the butterflies of Lekgalameetse. While researching the project and searching for data on the butterflies of Lekgalameetse, I came into contact with Megan Loftie-Eaton and Professor Les Underhill. They helped me with the information I required, and invited me to become a contributor towards the Animal Demography Unit’s Virtual Museum. It was under their guidance and constant encouragement that I would see myself fully immersed in the world of citizen science, coming into contact with other people who shared my enthusiasm. Pretty soon, I was noticing more than just the butterflies and started to submit records for more of the Virtual Museum projects. This chance encounter with Megan and Les has led me on a path of discovery which has not only shaped my private life and academic progression (I now hold a Batchelor’s degree in Environmental Management and a BSc Honours degree in Geography), but has also contributed significantly towards my work within disaster management. My whole life has been turned around since 2009. Citizen science has literally helped me to heal and grow.

The butterfly which first drew me into citizen science. It is a mother-of-pearl (Protogoniomorpha parhassus) one of the common butterflies of the region.

BDI: What has been the highlight for you?

The absolute highlight was, quite accidentally, re-discovering the Zimbabwe yellow-banded sapphire butterfly (Iolaus nasisii) in 2015, and subsequently being able to locate and successfully rear the Iolaus nasisii caterpillar. I also stumbled upon a thriving community of cryptic spreadwings (Lestes dissimulans) in an area where they have not previously been observed. There can be no better feeling than being able to contribute towards the scientific understanding of species’ distribution and ultimate conservation.

The newly emerged Zimbabwe yellow-banded sapphire butterfly (Iolaus nasisii). While carrying a bundle of hay for my horse on 12 November 2015, I found a small, colourful butterfly. The butterfly was unfortunately dead, probably having succumbed to one of the heatwaves to have gripped Limpopo during October and November. Being a keen LepiMAPper, and instantly recognising the butterfly as an important find, I scooped it up with my free hand, fed my horse and headed back indoors.

BDI: How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

Besides bringing me through a difficult period in my life, citizen science has provided me with a deeper understanding of how different components within the environment come together to make an ecosystem whole and functional, and how easily human activities can totally mess this up. This is something I continuously consider in my work within disaster management.

BDI: What are you still hoping to achieve?

Looking ahead, I am hoping for the opportunity to explore more areas and further contribute towards our understanding of the distribution of different species and how this is changing, especially in the face of climate change. My camera is nearly always part of my baggage. I am often required to travel around for work, and will take my camera with me if I think there may be an opportunity to obtain a few more records. This has delivered some surprises, like finding a Lucia Widow at a temporary pool of water in Giyani or a beautiful Streamer Tail moth in Tzaneen (see below). Just by chance, I was talking on my cellphone outside our offices in Tzaneen when the Streamer Tailed moth fluttered by. In a few slick, ninja-like moves, I managed to catch the moth, take a few photographs and release it again – much to the amusement of my work colleagues. I have yet to find another of these gorgeous moths. It is elusive species such as this which I hope to still encounter on my journey.

The Streamer tail moth caught outside my place of work in Tzaneen.

I try to reach 1000 records per year for the Virtual Museum. This is the first year that I have struggled to reach this target. This is largely due to the sudden drop in Lepidoptera numbers, a phenomenon observed across most parts of South Africa, in the summer of 2017/18..

BDI: How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Citizen science really inspires a person to get out there and explore the environment – thus pursuing healthy activities. Within my line of work, one unfortunately often has to deal a lot with the darker side of life. In my spare time, spending time in the environment looking for new records which can contribute towards citizen science projects, and the excitement of finding something new, really helps me to unwind and de-stress. This helps me to cope in what can be a very hectic, demanding environment.

“Disaster management” is the business of turning chaos into order. There are no dull moments! Something is always demanding attention. Citizen science helps me to unwind and de-stress after a hectic week or event.

What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

There is most certainly a link between citizen science and the conservation of biodiversity. Without the knowledge which is being generated by citizen science, I think it would be far more difficult to really monitor biodiversity. At the same time, there is a great deal of awareness which is being raised which contributes towards conservation and the promotion of biodiversity. In a rapidly changing world under climate change, the massive number of records generated through citizen science can broaden our understanding of how the distribution of different species is changing, and ultimately how this may impact on the human environment as well. We cannot live on this planet and think we are in no way connected with the natural environment. We depend on the environment, and if the environment suffers, so do we. Citizen science can make significant contributions by reaching a broad range of people, who in turn inspire and teach others this very basic concept.