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New app allows users to help preserve Kauai’s native rainforests as "couch conservationists"



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Native rainforest on Kauai. Photo: Hawaii Nature Conservancy

If you’re still an expert at figuring out where Waldo is; love Hawaii’s gorgeous, green forests; and are looking for a better way to spend your online time than playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Facebook (except for our page, of course); the Hawaii Challenge may be right up your alley!

The Hawaii Nature Conservancy has teamed up with DigitalGlobe to save a swath of remote Kauai rainforest from two invasive plant species: the Australian Tree Fern and the African Tulip Tree. Both are weeds, which crowd out native plants and kill them by stealing sunlight.

Hawaii’s rainforests are home to multitudes of endemic plants and animals, many of which are endangered. Invasive species pose a serious threat to the health of remaining endemic plants and animals, since they increase competition for limited natural resources. Hawaii’s ecosystems are especially fragile: more than 60% of Hawaii’s native species are on the U.S. Endangered Species List.

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Australian Tree Fern—an invasive plant damaging the Kauai rainforest. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

The decline of native organisms isn’t merely about losing endemic species. It also impacts Hawaiian culture, since residents sometimes use native plants for cultural practices. Additionally, rainforests are a crucial source of fresh water for Hawaii’s population, so when invasive species are allowed to thrive unchecked, everyone suffers.

Depressing, right? But don’t despair too much—thanks to a new web app, anyone can help preserve Hawaii’s rainforests without getting off the couch! The Hawaii Nature Conservancy’s Hawaii Challenge asks users to scour 3,000 acres of Kauai rainforest for these invasive plants, and tag them using high-res aerial photographs.

By participating in the Hawaii Challenge, volunteers (dubbed “couch conservationists”) can tag these invasive plant species by scrolling through a map. As users mark the invasive species on the map, Tomnod, DigitalGlobe’s crowdsourcing web app, aggregates the data and identifies tags with the most user agreement. The Hawaii Nature Conservancy then uses the data to pinpoint the location of the weeds, and eradicate them in the field using an herbicide-spraying helicopter called “The Stinger.”

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