Biological Sciences student wins British Ecological Society prize

29 Mar 2017 - 11:00

University of Cape Town ecologist Gabriella Leighton (pictured above) has won a British Ecological Society Young Investigator prize. The prize – one of only five awarded each year – recognises the best research papers published in BES journals by early career scientists.

Gabriella won the Robert May Prize for the best paper in the BES journal Methods in Ecology & Evolution in 2016 for her paper 'Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms'.

The prize, which includes £250, a year's BES membership plus a year's subscription to the journal, will be presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Ghent, Belgium in December.

It is awarded for an important contribution in converting one aspect of field ecology to a desktop science, and Gabriella's paper shows how Google can help make ecology cheaper, faster and safer in the future.

Many species are difficult, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous to observe, and well-trained fieldworkers are expensive to employ. Ecology would be much easier if we had better ways of observing species, and images taken by amateur and professional photographers, if geo-referenced, could be a rich source of ecological information.

Gabriella analysed online image data across a range of species, from black bears in western North America to black sparrowhawks in South Africa, comparing data on their colour collected by fieldworkers with data from Google images, and found that the online images are a very reliable source of data.

To make the method accessible, Gabriella’s paper also includes a web application, Morphic, that allows the approach to be widely implemented.

Gabriella is currently an MSc student at the University of Cape Town, where she did her BSc(Hons) in Biological Sciences supervised by Dr Arjun Amar (a co-author of her award-winning paper.