Citizen science

You came in your thousands to help our 2020 project tackle deforestation and sustainability

Our partnership for 2020Spotting spider monkeys

We are delighted to confirm our Zooniverse citizen science project for 2020 is Spotting Spider Monkeys.

British Science Week is calling on the public to help scientists tackle deforestation and habitat loss, from the comfort of their own sofa. In previous years, an armchair army tagged over 1.5 million pieces of plastics, spotted penguins and transcribed weather reports – all to save researchers 1000’s of hours of time. This year’s chosen citizen science project is encouraging members of the public to tag footage of endangered and vulnerable spider monkeys in Central America, which has been captured using drone-mounted thermal-infrared cameras.

Animals are going extinct at a rate not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. To help save endangered animals we need to monitor and understand ecosystems very well, and catch poachers before they do any harm. Drones allow us to survey large and difficult to reach areas quickly with minimal disturbance to wildlife.

Do you want to help save endangered animals using drones? Of course you do!

We’ve teamed up with researchers at Liverpool John Moores University to bring you a brand new set of imagery taken by drones that need classifying to help us tackle this issue. During British Science Week,  we want to tag and classify as many images as possible of spider monkeys in the natural habitat in Central America.

Get Spotting Now!

If you’re planning on running Spotting Spider Monkeys in your classroom, you might find this handout useful too.

What do spider monkeys look like?

Spider Monkeys in Tulúm Mexico 2 (1) (Photo credit - Luis Palomino)
Spider Monkeys in Tulúm Mexico (Photo credit – Luis Palomino)

Spider monkeys (genus Ateles) are so named as their five long limbs remind people of spiders. There is quite a lot of variation in the colouration of their fur – some species have entirely black fur whereas others have combinations of black and yellow or brown and white, and even some gold and red.

There are seven species of spider monkeys and they are found from the south of Mexico to the North of Bolivia.

Spider monkeys are arboreal, meaning that they spend most of their time in the forest canopy, which in some forests can be around 40-50m above the ground. Like the other primates in their Family (Atelidae), they have highly specialised prehensile tails, full of muscles that can be used as an extra arm and which they use to hang onto branches and prevent themselves from falling (like a safety harness). Females carry their infants on their backs when they travel through the forest for about the first two years of life.

You can find out more about spider monkeys on the Spotting Spider Monkeys website. 


Why spider monkeys?

Spider monkey in the tree canopy (Photo Credit - Claire Burke)
Spider monkey in the tree canopy (Photo Credit – Claire Burke)

Spider monkeys are very long-lived primates and the females only have one infant about every three years. Sadly, huge areas of the spider monkeys’ habitat is being lost due to agricultural expansion and tourism expansion, particularly for the production of unsustainable palm oil. Not only that, but spider monkeys are often hunted for food or to be kept as pets.

Their slow reproduction makes it difficult for spider monkeys to recover from disturbances in their habitat and as a result all species of spider monkeys are threatened with extinction.

The decline in spider monkey populations is highly problematic as these monkeys play a vital role in their ecosystem. Spider monkeys have a diet that consists mainly of fruit. In many cases they ingest the seeds that are in the fruits whole and excrete them far away from the parent tree.

Studies have shown that passage through the spider monkey gut helps the seeds to germinate.

Together, this means that spider monkeys can be considered gardeners of the forest as they play a very important role in forest regeneration.

Losing spider monkeys from Latin American forests would equate to large scale changes in the tree species that make up the forest as many trees depend on these monkeys for their dispersal.


How will this project help?

Jungle drone at sunrise (Photo credit - Claire Burke)
Jungle drone at sunrise (Photo credit – Claire Burke)

By tagging the images taken by the aerial drones, researchers will be able to train an AI algorithm to find and track spider monkeys on its own, without the need for human surveillance. However, in order to have enough data to train the AI, thousands of images need to tagged – something that would take the researchers alone years to complete. This is where you come in. By taking part in this project you are helping the scientists get one step closer to developing an autonomous species tracker.

This would not only save hours of time for the researchers involved in the project but also the local authorities in Mexico and Central America. We will also be better equipped to tackle the threat of habitat loss and deforestation by monitoring larger areas of forest simultaneously.

With the black spider monkey population estimated to have fallen by 30% in the last 45 years, primarily due to habitat loss and hunting, this is vital work. Through the destruction of tropical forests we risk our own quality of life, gamble with the stability of climate and local weather, threaten the existence of other species, and undermine the valuable services provided by biological diversity.

Spotting Spider Monkeys is led by Dr Claire Burke who has a PhD in astrophysics. Dr Burke applies drone and remote sensing technology to methods developed in astrophysics, climate and atmospheric science, computer science, and engineering to tackle major global challenges such as poaching.

You can find out more about Claire and her research on our Smashing Stereotypes page.


You can find out more about the Astro-ecology team at Liverpool John Moores University on their website, as well as the Drone Research Group who oversee this project.

The British Science Association is partnering on this project with Liverpool John Moores University as well as Mexico-based ConMonoMaya A.C. and Universidad Veracruzana.