Public Domain

Project of the Week #4: Conker Tree Science

This week's project is one we heard about from Michael Pocock at the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology in the UK: Conker Tree Science.

What does this project do?
It tracks parasite damage to the conker tree, also known as the horse chestnut tree, most especially from the leaf-mining moth, an alien species. It looks for the spread of these alien species, which are of course not aliens from another planet but plants, fungi or animals from other parts of the world, with which local species are not adapted to living. It also looks for solutions to these problems and which, when present, seem to be working best.

What do I have to do?
Go to this page where you just need a name and email address, and fill out the form with what you see on and under a conker tree. You will be shown pictures of what various types of damage and parasite invasion look like and be asked to tick the boxes which best match what you see.

The project is UK-based, but conker trees are definitely elsewhere - they originate from south-east Europe and have been planted in many towns and cities, including in North America, so please keep a lookout. Alternatively, please visit us in Britain!

Where can I find out more?
Their About page, their blog, their Twitter feed @ConkerScience and their first scientific results paper.

What's Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!

More details:
The conker tree has a reputation for being very British, though it has only been here for a few hundred years. Every autumn it drops spiky-covered seeds which are the bright red-brown conkers British people play with, causing enough mystification to be written about in the New Scientist magazine.

Last January Michael Pocock gave an excellent talk at our Citizen Science Training Day, which contained many lessons not just about conker trees but about citizen science and public engagement. Interestingly, one of the project's discoveries was that using phrases inducing fear might recruit volunteers for a short time, but will not keep them long term: emphasising "threats to our trees", for example, is less effective than promoting a love of and harmony with nature.

Historically, citizens have made long term records of the natural world in a long-term fashion, while Conker Tree Science made more short-term, hypothesis-driven observations. Michael Pocock and Darren Evans started by recruiting eight volunteers who then worked with several classes of schoolchildren aged 8-11. They asked specific questions about parasite damage and other factors that affected the parasites, such as the tree's environment and leaf litter underneath, and any predatory species. Another question was whether parasites make trees more vulnerable to other conditions, such as canker. However, the project was always open to everyone, and now especially all are welcome to submit observations.

The leaf-mining moth is not native to the UK and has been spreading rapidly; Conker Tree Science quantified this spread and continues to do so. It is also not only conker trees that are vulnerable to parasites and disease, so you are likely to see more citizen science projects tracking tree health in the future.