Photo: Kristian Bell

AusPollen Grass Gazers: Citizen Scientists helping with pollen allergy research

AusPollen Grass Gazers is a Citizen Science project aiming to better characterise grass species distribution and flowering in Brisbane, to better predict airborne grass pollen levels and help allergy sufferers; grass pollen is the major outdoor allergen trigger of hayfever in Australia. The project would welcome groups and individual Citizen Scientists who could contribute observations of grasses in flower within the greater Brisbane region using a simple app (iNaturalist). To help, please find more information here.

Across Australia the monitoring and forecasting of grass pollen is inconsistently supported, but pollen forecasting is seen internationally as an important tool for allergy sufferers. The NHMRC AusPollen Partnership (2016-2020) sought to establish our first national standardized pollen monitoring network with sites in Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.This was rapidly expanded across Victoria following Melbourne’s deadly thunderstorm asthma event of November 2016, as well as in Tasmania (AirRater).

Patches of Windmill Grass (Chloris truncata) in flower

The grass pollen forecasting that is currently undertaken is mainly based on local pollen measurements and weather data, without modelling of the pollen source. However, knowledge of the flowering stage of the grass and when they actively produce and release pollen would improve pollen forecast capability. Close observations of the flowering of different grasses would provide a better spatial and temporal picture of the distribution of active grass pollen sources around Brisbane.

Although the southern Australian temperate grasses and their pollen seasonality are well characterised, they differ significantly from grasses of subtropical regions. Airborne grass pollen levels in Melbourne approximate a curve with a single peak extending from early October to the end of December, with few high and extreme grass level days. In subtropical Brisbane, the airborne pollen season starts later and lasts longer, has multiple peaks, and often extends from November well into the following April with a greater number of high and extreme days. In fact, pollen distributions in temperate regions are much better described worldwide than for subtropical or tropical regions.

Illustration of the difference between Melbourne and Brisbane Pollen seasons (adapted Beggs et al., ANZ 2015; Davies QUT Allergy Research Group for NHMRC AusPollen Partnership)

For the AusPollen Brisbane daily pollen forecast, atmospheric grass pollen levels are measured at a single site, about eight km from the city centre and adjacent to a school farm area (Rocklea). The pollen is collected by a continuous flow volumetric impaction sampler onto a sticky tape throughout the day, retrieved first thing in the following morning, and then manually identified and quantified using light microscopy in the laboratory. The QUT Allergy Research Group also collect pollen on weekly tapes at an Air Quality Monitoring site approximately 50 km from the city and less than 20km from heavily populated and intense population growth areas around Ipswich. Our research indicates that these two sites vary in grass pollen timing which may be related to the composition of grass species and local weather patterns.

It is evident that airborne grass pollen levels in Brisbane differ from those in better characterised temperate climates, and but spatiotemporal differences in the pollen distribution across the Brisbane region may be due to differences in climate and/or in species distribution and pollen production. It is difficult, expensive, and time consuming to manually count pollen, so there is no capacity to increase pollen monitoring. It is even more difficult to determine grass species from collected air samples because this must be done through DNA analysis; only family and not genera or species of grass is detectable in pollen by light microscope.

Magnified Bahia Grass flower showing pollen production activity (anthers) and stigma.
Microscope image of Grass Pollen

To help address these knowledge gaps, the QUT Allergy Research Group is launching Grass Gazers, a Citizen Science project run through iNaturalist. The project aims to collect grass species information, distribution and flowering status, across the greater Brisbane region to begin to develop a better picture of the city’s airborne grass pollen sources. The project is run in partnership with the Queensland Herbarium and Corinda State High School and funded by a QLD Government Citizen Science Grant and QUT Institute for Future Environments (IFE).  An initial scoping study was conducted in partnership with Corinda State High School students during term 2 of 2020. If you would like to know more about that study and its outcomes, please read here.

Contributing to the Grass Gazers project is as simple as using iNaturalist to make an observation of a plant within the grass (Poaceae) family. Each Grass Gazer observation needs manual addition of four important details (observational fields) that describe the flowering stage, abundance and diversity, and habitat of the observed grass as well as whether the grass is mown or grazed.

QUT ARG are seeking Citizen Scientists who could contribute to observations of grasses in flower in their local environment. We also invite all interested iNaturalist users to share their expertise with us and help to curate the Grass Gazers observations.

If you would like to know more about the Project and/or become one of our Grass Gazer Citizen Scientists, please read more here. If you would like to help in identification of our entries, please contact us here.

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