DIY Science – Citizens Saving the World?
In the deep, dark forests of Madagascar, lives an elusive creature. It watches the world with over-large, orange eyes. Every day another part of it’s natural habitat is burned to the ground. It is not an aggressive creature, and during the day it sleeps in a tree hole, relying on its fur as a natural camouflage. When darkness falls, it flees – leaping from tree to tree with the grace and precision of a world class athlete. This animal is the Sahamalaza sportive lemur, and there are fewer than 3000 left in the entire world.
These primates live only in the Sahmalaza national park, a small forest in the north-west of Madagascar. The trees and plants that they rely on for shelter and food are being cleared. Their whole existence is being threatened by felling. These naturally gentle creatures are often hunted for food, and without their natural habitat, their future is bleak. They could vanish completely from the world, and we don’t know exactly what that would mean for the rest of the forest and its inhabitants.
The big problem is the we don’t really know much about them. These creatures are so rare, and so elusive that we have no knowledge about their basic ecology and behaviour. And, because (like so many endangered species) these primates are SO rare and SO remote, it’s unlikely that the wheels of traditional scientific funding will move far enough or fast enough to help. In recent years, research that isn’t being lead by an investigator with dozens of successful projects, and research that (in all probability) won’t generate a clear cash profit somewhere along the line is almost impossible to garner. It’s in the nature of big business to minimize risk and maximize rewards, and big science is no different. But this way of thinking could be set to change, with crowdfunding sites like experiment.com providing a platform for scientists to call for funding directly from the public.
Direct funding like this is flexible and fast. When you’re pitching to thousands of potential backers, there is no need to wait for months to receive a result from a committee of experts. This is partly because the risks are lower. It’s a lot easier for 1000 people to decide to give $1 than it is for 1 person to decide to give $1000. The main drawback for the scientists choosing this source of funding, is that crowd-sourcing requires a different set of skills than most scientists are used to providing. Public engagement is taken to a new level with crowdfunding, and as anyone who’s read the comment section of a website will know – people on the internet can be cruel, rude, and irrational. Dealing with this sort of person might come as a shock to some scientists who are more comfortable with the buffered protection of a university campus.
Crowdfunding provides a unique avenue for researchers like those involved with the project that’s hoping to save the Sahamalaza sportive lemur. Scientists desperately need more information on these lemurs so that they can help them, because these primates can’t speak out for themselves. They can’t stand up and rebuild their habitat, but we as ordinary citizens can help by supporting one small part of the research into this cryptic species. It might just be that an evolution in science funding will secure a safe future for more than just these little leapers.
You can read more about how to save these unique creatures and donate here:
So why should you care? Like all primates, the Sahamalaza sportive lemur has fingerprints – a set of identifying ridges and whorls that make every primate’s fingertip unique in the world. The number of surviving Sahamalaza sportive lemurs is in a rapid decline, and if nothing is done then a species with an identity as unique as an individual human fingerprint will be gone forever.