British ecology award for UCT student

Cape Town – University of Cape Town (UCT) ecologist Gabriella Leighton has won a British Ecological Society Young Investigator prize.

One of only five awarded each year, it recognises the best research papers published in society journals by early-career scientists.

Leighton, 23, won the Robert May Prize for the best paper in methods in ecology and evolution in 2016 for “Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms”.

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

It is awarded for an important contribution in converting one aspect of field ecology to a desktop science, and Leighton’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 watch, and well-trained fieldworkers are expensive to employ. Eco-
ogy would be easier if experts 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.

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

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

Leighton is reading for her master’s degree at UCT, where she completed her honours in biological sciences supervised by Dr Arjun Amar, a co-author of her paper.

“I am extremely honoured, I never thought I would get this award. I am only at the very beginning of my career. It is a huge accolade.”

She said…

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