Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category
Dig into even more Thanksgiving projects with your friends and family!
Imagine: After months of treacherous sailing across the open ocean, skirting coral reefs and rocky shores, you alight upon lush tropical islands greeted by enticing aromas, unknown species, and a symphony of bird song…
Four years into her circumnavigation of the globe, the HMS Beagle carrying 24-year-old Charles Darwin landed in the Galápagos Islands forever changing our understanding of biodiversity and species evolution through natural selection. The Galápagos Islands are famous for their vast numbers of endangered and endemic species, rich biodiversity, and isolated Pacific location. Yet, invasive species and human development threaten their existence. Could exploring Darwin’s living laboratory be as simple as a virtual visit?
Research, as well as travel, in the Galápagos Islands is difficult due to its remote location and expense. In Darwin for a Day, a partnership between the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), Google Earth Outreach Team, Catlin Seaview Survey and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), citizen scientists can virtually explore the best-preserved tropical archipelago in the world from the comfort of home.
Using innovative technology, Google Maps surveyed the Galápagos Islands and their marine environments in May 2013 to create a virtual, 360-degree experience that can be explored through the web. Grab your Darwin hat and moleskin as you select the island you wish to explore, zoom in to street view (much as you do when getting directions to your local pizza place or coffeeshop) then document the unique natural history by describing what you see – plant, animal, reptile, bird, fish. Just as real-life scientists record their data, observations can range from simple descriptions to detailed scientific names and technical information. Images and data are shared with CDF scientists and the iNaturalist community to help characterize the islands, monitor species diversity, and record changes to these delicate ecosystems.
“This is a unique opportunity to spearhead technology science for conservation and public awareness about the importance of the Galápagos ecosystems in a changing world.” according to Daniel Orellana, CDF’s head of Human Systems Research. “The outcomes of the project will allow CDF and GNPD to count on valuable information for research and the continued conservation of the Galápagos Islands.”
Since its launch in September 2013, Darwin for a Day has recorded nearly 600 observations of over 100 different species. As more citizen scientists participate, the data will be used to develop conservations strategies ranging for educational programs to responsible land management and ecotourism strategies without harming these unique ecosystems.
After feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie, why not make a date with Darwin for a Day and explore the exotic and far off wonders of the Galápagos Islands? The blue-footed booby and Galápagos sea lion send their thanks.
This project is also part of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020.
Images: Charlesjsharp & Google
Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.
Dig into this serving of Thanksgiving projects with your friends and family!
While you’re waiting for the food to cook, explore the Galapagos with Darwin for a Day! Explore the Galapagos Islands through Google Street View and document its unique plants and animals. Data will be shared with the iNaturalist community, and the Charles Darwin Foundation, and will contribute to research of the Galapagos Islands. Get started!
Help researchers take census of winter Monarch butterflies. Count Monarchs in colonies, during the mornings around Thanksgiving. Get started!
Help monitor winter bird populations in Western states. Count birds within a 15-foot area, anywhere in the Western states, for one hour on Thanksgiving Day. Get started!
Ready for dessert? How about some Pi? Test your own number sense, or download this software and adapt it for your own research or educational purposes. Get started!
Walk off that big meal while improving the health of your local beach. This app will allow you to check in when you find trash on our coastlines and waterways. Get started!
Have you joined more than one citizen science project? FREE SciStarter t-shirt for the first 25 eligible people who email us to participate in a 15-minute phone survey! We want to talk to people who have joined more than one citizen science project so we can learn from their experiences and improve our community services. Email Carolyn@SciStarter.com if you’d like to participate.
We are partnering up with WHYY-a National Public Radio station-to help share stories about citizen science projects and people in PA, NJ and DE. If you have a story to share, let us know! Contact Lily@SciStarter.com
If you’d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email email@example.com
Drag your bones toward even more Halloween-themed citizen science!
We know from basic ecology that organisms are adapted to their environment, and where certain organisms live should fall along a gradient of critical environmental factors such as moisture, temperature, nutrient availability, or substrate. How these factors impact diversity and distribution are questions that we could solve for macroorganisms like trees, but the hidden world of microbes still has yet to yield the answers to these mysteries.
Dr. Andy Whiteley and Dr. Christine Whiteley are investigating these questions with MicroBlitz, a citizen science project centered at the University of Western Australia. They’re interested in digging up soil and finding out what lives inside. To do this, they’ve been enlisting the help of volunteers around Western Australia to sample soil. Volunteers go out, bite into the earth with a shovel, and send their specific blend of microbes to the University of Western Australia for Dr. Whiteley to analyze.
To understand this, it’s useful to think of the Gaia hypothesis. This is the idea that the entire Earth, as a biosphere, acts as a living organism. We can imagine soil in a similar light. It’s not actually living but is a teeming metropolis of trillions of microscopic citizens. In a fistful of soil, you might find 10,000 different species of microbe. Dr. Whiteley describes it as “a rainforest under your foot” with each footfall. Soil microbes are the powerhouses of many biogeochemical cycles on the planet, turning over oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur, and are critical to plant growth and productivity. They work unceasingly and are, in a way, the hidden machinery of the planet.
You can imagine microbes as being somewhat specialized. There are bacteria that eat sulfur and others that eat nitrogen, such as Rhizobium, a genus of nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in soil. While you might find these bacteria in many places, presumably you would expect to find more in areas that naturally have more nitrogen or perhaps in areas that have added nitrogen due to industrial processes. And depending on environmental conditions, each place cultivates a specific mix of microbes. There would be certain bacteria that one might find associating with farms or a river. This is what MicroBlitz is trying to understand, and more precisely, trying to map where these bacteria are and what kinds of conditions generate one population of microbes over another.
The project grew out of a similar survey that Dr. Whiteley had done in England in 2007, where they completed a map of soil microbes with the help of trained scientists. It was possible to do it that way, Dr. Whiteley affirms, since there’s less land than in Australia and more scientists per square kilometer. Now two years later, beginning in the March of this year, MicroBlitz is working with the help of citizen scientists to do a map of a much larger scale. Without a large number of MicroBlitz volunteers, the project would be impossible since the territory to cover in Western Australia is vast. How many citizen scientists exactly? Deborah Bowie, the project manager for MicroBlitz, says hundreds have registered, “We’ve sent out over 750 sampling kits so far. People from all over the state are involved, sometimes individually, and sometimes through a group.”
In order to find out what’s inside the soil samples they get, Dr. Whiteley and his lab freeze the soil and extract and sequence the DNA of the microbes. They can use this information to find out what species are living inside the soil and how many of each there are. The data are then uploaded to their website and are accessible for all to appreciate. Whiteley hopes the maps will be available soon. “I’d like to use satellites linked to our maps to understand country-scale levels of things such as microbial mediated greenhouse gas emissions – having the maps let us potentially calibrate this approach,” Whiteley says. Once maps are available, Whiteley plans to be able to repeat the process and begin understanding how environmental change might be affecting the soil and what the soil might be affecting, such as global warming.
The goal is currently to get as many samples from as diverse places as the MicroBlitz team can get. So Whiteley and Bowie often go to under sampled areas to reach out to people, teach them about the project, and encourage them to get involved. Both Whiteley and Bowie agree; it’s the best part of the project. “We ran a DNA workshop for seniors, and they loved it. It was something they had never experienced before … extracting DNA from strawberries, but the smiles on their faces and the feedback will stay with the whole team forever,” Dr. Whiteley says. The project helps teach science to the community and connect them to their environment by showing them what lives beneath their feet.
Photograph: Deborah Bowie
Angus R. Chen is a research assistant at Princeton University, where he does geochronology research using uranium and lead isotopes from zircon crystals. Previously, he was a research intern at the Harvard Forest, studying the impacts of climate change on soil. He recently graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in environmental science and creative writing. When he’s not in the lab admiring rocks and then pulverizing them, he writes poetry, fiction, science articles, and makes cool videos.
Recently researchers at Michigan State University have been turning their attention to how we study plant photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the biological process by which plants and algae convert light into storable energy for growth and survival. Quantifying photosynthesis levels can reveal a lot about plant health. For example how efficient is the plant in capturing light energy. How resilient is it in the face of environmental stressors such as drought.
Scientists already have tools to measure photosynthesis. Unfortunately, these tools can be prohibitively expensive or require testing be done in a lab. To address this obstacle, researchers at Michigan University launched Photosynq, an open access project aimed at creating a low-cost hand-held device which would allow anyone and anywhere to measure photosynthesis.
Scientists still have much to learn about plant photosynthesis and crowd sourcing the research can be really helpful. “The way we currently study plants is limited,” explains project manager Greg Austic. “We take one plant, grow it in the lab and examine what happens to that one plant in very controlled conditions. But there are thousands of plant species, and they are growing and surviving outside in their real environment. Creating a device that enables anybody to contribute to this research could really expand our understanding.”
The creators have developed a device small enough to hook up to a cellphone, which comes preloaded with a bank of measurements and protocols for the user to select from. After collecting their data, users can upload their results to an open database. The beauty of the project is that anyone with a phone and an internet connection could use it, meaning its use would not be limited to academic research. The Photosynq team envisions educators using it as a teaching implement to help students learn about plant biology. Or farmers using it to modify planting strategies. And as more people use it, the larger the database grows giving everyone more data to use.
Mining that data could result in some pretty interesting outcomes. For example, researchers might identify a plant with unusually high photosynthesis efficiency. A private citizen might stumble upon a plant that is particularly effective at carbon capture. These potential discoveries could be used to develop new, possibility greener, technologies.
The device and project materials are still in beta and the Photosynq team is interested in getting more input about their project. The developers encourage individuals to sign up to be device beta testers. They are also interested in pre-production input. If there is a measurement or tool that you think would be useful or interesting to have, visit their Google discussion board and let them know. The more feedback they can get, the better the device will meet people’s needs.
At the heart of the project is the philosophy of making science and scientific inquiry more open. “What I think is so great about this project,” Austic explains, “is its mission to create an ecosystem where anyone [be it a senior scientist or a curious seven year old] can ask a science question and engage anyone to answer it.”
Learn more about their project, why it is important, and how you can get involved by visiting.
Dr. Carolyn Graybeal holds a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University. She is a former National Academies of Science Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow during which time she worked with the Marian Koshland Science Museum. In addition the intricacies of the human brain, she is interested in the influence of education and mass media in society’s understanding of science.
If you ever asked me how many kinds of spiders were there in the world, I would say there are two that I know of. The one with thin long legs that inhabit the walls of my house and keep me up at night, and the enormous one with hairy legs that inhabit theater screens around the world … and also keep me up at night. And boy would I have been wrong. As it turns out, there are more than forty three thousand species of spiders in the world (43,678 as of 2008 according to the American Museum of Natural History, to be exact).
As scary as they may seem, spiders play a critical role in our ecosystem. Since they are an important predator for insects, they act as natural insect control agents, keeping their populations in check. And like any other living organism, they are affected by climate change. However, the impact of such temperature or other environmental changes on spider distribution in their habitats are unknown.
This is where community science project ‘Where is my spider’ initiated by the Explorit Science Center steps in. This project is hosted on the website iNaturalist.org, a place where observations of living species are curated online. In ‘Where is my spider,’ you can join other eager spider seekers and upload a picture on to the project website, adding in details such as when and where you saw it (just make sure it has eight legs!). Don’t know what species you saw? Not to worry. If you have the time, you can play the sleuth and discover the species for yourself using online resources such as the Encyclopedia of Life. Or you can always rely on the community of curators at iNaturalist to help you out. Either way, ‘Where is my Spider’ will be a fun way to contribute to citizen science while learning something about the world around you.
Start off by going through SciStarter to get an Explorit ID and use the ID when uploading your observation on the iNaturalist project page. iNaturalist has a host of other citizen science projects so it will definitely be worth your while to register there and check out other projects as well. Oh and if you’re in the Sacramento/Davis area be sure to find out about exciting science events hosted by Explorit.
Spiders not scary enough? Be sure to check out other Halloween themed projects on SciStarter!
Arvind Suresh is a graduate student in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. For his thesis, he has been studying the molecular mechanisms behind uterine contraction during pregnancy. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. www.suresharvind.com