Biosecurity in Australia Coming from Unexpected Source: Gamers

How Gamers and Mobile Phones are Helping Protect the Environment

The Indo-Pacific or Fox Gecko (Hemidactylus garnotti ). Photo by QuestaGame player, Jonathan Pugh  (  CC BY-NC 2.0  ) .

The Indo-Pacific or Fox Gecko (Hemidactylus garnotti). Photo by QuestaGame player, Jonathan Pugh (CC BY-NC 2.0).

CANBERRA - When Sydney resident Jonathan Pugh started playing a gaming app on his mobile phone, he’d never have guessed it could potentially save Australia tens of millions of dollars in future biosecurity costs.

The game is called QuestaGame and it gets players outdoors to photograph plants and animals, while awarding points based on the rarity of the sighting and the player's ability to correctly identify it.  

On 20 September last year, Jonathan submitted a photo of a gecko perched on the wall of his Sydney home. Several top-ranked experts in the game were quick to identify it for him: An Asian House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus), they all agreed. A good find, but nothing extraordinary. 

“I’d often hear them in my house,” says Pugh, a high school teacher. “I was curious what it was.”

Cut to March this year when another QuestaGame player, Charlie, also based in Sydney, submitted a sighting of a similar looking gecko. This time, however, the sighting caught the eye of one of QuestaGame’s highest ranked players in the reptiles category.

“I’m confident this is an Indo-Pacific or Fox Gecko - H. garnotii” wrote the player, who goes by the name HungryCroc on QuestaGame. “And it’s not supposed to be in Australia.” 

Not only that, but when HungryCroc reviewed other sightings of the same genus on QuestaGame, he found Jonathan’s gecko from September 20. It, too, he declared, was a Fox Gecko, not an Asian House Gecko.

Suddenly it was clear: two different QuestaGame players in Sydney had submitted sightings of an invasive gecko species not known to exist in Australia. The biosecurity authorities in New South Wales were alerted and within days a sample specimen was collected.

“QuestaGame was designed to get people outdoors, having fun, discovering, learning about and helping map biodiversity,” says David Haynes, QuestaGame’s Communications Office. “Only now, with some of these big impact discoveries, are we starting to realise just how valuable it can be to biosecurity.” 

Questagame players John Martin and Danielle Stocks in the field competing against other players while helping map their local flora and fauna.

Questagame players John Martin and Danielle Stocks in the field competing against other players while helping map their local flora and fauna.

And as QuestaGame expands, such “big impact” discoveries are happening more often.

For example, recently a player named Chookman in Brisbane submitted a photo of a Clown Weevil (Eudiagogus maryae), only the second time it had been reported in Queensland and which Biosecurity Queensland are evaluating as a potential biosecurity threat. And on March 6th, QuestaGame player HypoMix submitted the first known sighting in Victoria of a wasp species - possibly the European Paper Wasp (Polistes dominula) - which poses a threat to agriculture and biodiversity, as well as to human health from allergic reactions to their stings.

“There’s no doubt that a system like QuestaGame can help with early detection of invasive threats,” says Andrew Cox, CEO of the Invasive Species Council. “Their expertise system is highly advanced and effective at rapid identification. Early detection is key, because for each day or week delay could be the difference between eradication and having to live with a new damaging pest. Early detection can save Australian millions if not billions of dollars.“

QuestaGame is now rolling out its technology to schools across Australia, as well as overseas, with a product called Ranger Vision - which means that by 2019, more eyes will be looking out for, and learning about, invasive species than ever before. One can only guess what discoveries they’ll make. 


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