Archive for the ‘Ecology & Environment’ Category
Help scientists monitor the phytoplankton population in oceans with a secchi disk and the secchi app.
Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!
Marine ecosystems, like all ecosystems, are made of complex food webs. The most abundant part of a marine food web is microbial plankton. Phytoplankton are very important, as they are responsible for about half of all photosynthesis on the planet; they absorb half of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and produce half of the oxygen we breathe. Global warming and climate change are unfortunately putting phytoplankton numbers in danger, as phytoplankton populations are negatively affected by warming waters. When the water warms, it creates layers of temperature, so there is no cycling of nutrients as there is in less-layered waters.
To track these changes, a team of scientists led by Dr. Richard Kirby at Plymouth University, have created a mobile app called the Secchi App. The app, along with a homemade secchi disk, can be used to measure the turbidity of the water. These measurements give an estimate of the amount of phytoplankton in the water, and the app attaches GPS information to the data. Users must select their GPS location first, but if network connectivity is low (as it often is in the middle of the ocean), the app will be able to upload data once they get in range of a stable connection.
Using a secchi disk is very straightforward: a 30-cm white disk is attached to a 50 meter-long string and lowered into the water until it cannot be seen anymore, then the length of the string is recorded (the length of the string at this point is called the ‘secchi depth’). For the app, there are no restrictions on what the secchi disk can be made of, as long as it’s painted white, weighed down with a 200 gram weight, has a diameter of 30 cm, and kept clean for maximum visibility. The ideal time to collect data is between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. Users also have the option to input the temperature of the water, take a photograph, add notes, and input their boat name. These details, especially the temperature, would help scientists understand the context of the secchi depth even more.
Dr. Kirby says this app is for “seafarers and scientists.”  Anyone with a boat, a secchi disk, and a phone can participate. Since the ocean is too large for data collection by one team, they need your help. Collecting and inputing data for the Secchi app takes less than five minutes, which gives users the opportunity to collect multiple data points in a small amount of time.
When users send their measurements to the database, scientists like Dr. Kirby can use them to accurately predict the productivity of phytoplankton in the ocean. Scientists can also track if algal blooms are imminent. Algal blooms, commonly known as red tides, are characterized by a spike in phytoplankton populations. Red tides are usually harmful, as they cloud the water and starve the species underneath by preventing photosynthesis. When the red tide is over, the phytoplankton sink to the bottom of the sea to be eaten by bacteria. When the bacteria eat the phytoplankton, this robs the local area of oxygen, creating a dead zone. Balance is key: too many phytoplankton in the water is just as harmful as too few.
When you use the secchi app and send your data, you are helping scientists track of the number of phytoplankton in the ocean. These numbers can be used to further investigate what other factors cause the rise and fall of phytoplankton numbers. Since phytoplankton are such an important part of the marine food web, their numbers affect the populations of many other species. Participants are helping to track phytoplankton as well as many keystone species. You could be a part of something much larger.
Editor’s Note: The bottom image has been changed to show a white marine secchi disk, which is the proper disk for this type of project. In addition, the quote from Dr. Kirby has been referenced appropriately. We apologize for the errors.
 From FAQ section.
Image credits: Dr. Richard Kirby
Albany Jacobson Eckert is working toward a BS in Marine Vertebrate Biology at Stony Brook University. She hopes to conduct oceanographic research in the near future. Her blog, marinebiomondays.wordpress.com, is geared toward promoting scientific literacy and explaining concepts behind recent scientific headlines.
Save the sablefish (also known as black cod) and help scientists by counting the fish in video clips.
Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!
Scientists call it Anoplopoma fimbria, fishers might know it as the sablefish, while some chefs call it the Black Cod. Found hovering just above the muddy North Pacific seabed, you may have enjoyed one down at the Moby Dick restaurant or whatever your favorite seafood restaurant is called. The sablefish—a yummy opportunistic feeder known for its buttery taste has been harvested from US waters since the late 1800s.
In Alaska, heavy foreign fishing depleted the sablefish stocks through the seventies until the US took control of the waters in 1976 and phased out foreign fishing. After that, the fishing season began to shorten and the number of fishers actually increased. When this happens a fishery produces a lot of poor quality fish—the outcome is an unstable stock. In 1995, conservation managers implemented a program that sought to more strictly regulate the Alaska commercial fishery; it set limits for each fisher, but within a longer season. This decreased the harvest of immature fish, which meant those fish had a good chance to reproduce at least once.
Now a citizen science program called Project Digital Fishers needs your help, and it may keep the sablefish on the table at the Moby Dick. It is a project that enlists public support to run a second trial for researchers, and for computer scientists as well. For the latter, an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria has developed an algorithm that can “count” fish. He will use this campaign to ground truth his software. This video on YouTube shows this in action.
As researchers continue to monitor the resource, they hope to inform careful management of the stock. Jodie Walsh, the research coordinator for the Center for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, says, “A research group at the Marine Science Institute (Institut de Ciènces del Mar) in Barcelona, Spain, investigates biological rhythms in various species around the world. By better understanding species behavior they hope to help in marine resource management and provide advice to improve fishing practices. And Carolina Doya, a PhD student working with Dr. Jacopo Aguzzi, uses NEPTUNE Canada cameras to study biological rhythms of fish in Barkley Canyon.” Counting fish in the field of view of the camera, and using specialized statistical tools, will enable her to see if fish movements and/or behavior can be predicted in relation to known natural cycles.
When an experiment returns a broad variety of results, researchers typically have to run the numbers again, which in this instance means they have to review the film footage of a submarine transect once more, while counting the number of Black Cod seen in a specified time. The result will be punched into a formula and extrapolated out for a region or field—which produces an accurate estimate of the number of fish in a population. So now you can contribute to real science—compare apples to apples (or in this case sablefish to sablefish) by counting the sablefish exactly as the research crew is doing in their labs. This will save an enormous amount of time and money, and it will contribute to both computer and environmental research.
You have to create an account, and the controls of the digital interface take a bit of getting used to. After a few awkward attempts, I got the hang of it, had learned to identify the species and was counting for the A team. The website says you only have to count for 15 seconds, but each video clip runs for almost a minute. After those first few attempts I settled down and actually began to anticipate seeing a sablefish—I counted as many as six in a 60 second clip, and sometimes none appeared. To beat the first level you have to complete 10 ‘annotations’ or views, but to advance to the third level you have to complete 24!
Digital Fishers is currently counting sablefish, but Walsh says, “We have also looked at crabs, Mapping Seafloor, Trawling, thornyhead rockfish and deep-sea ecosystems, or sometimes we just show some of the video that has been collected and ‘digital fishers’ annotate many other species in our general campaigns.” Digital fishers hail from Canada, US, Spain, France, Germany, South Africa, Oman, Switzerland, Colombia, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, Italy, so anyone can compete. (The sablefish is found in UK waters as well—there it is called the blue cod, bluefish, candlefish or coal cod, and in Canada it’s known as the coalfish, beshow or skil.) The sablefish project will likely run through July.
Top Image: NOAA Photo Library
Bottom Image: Digital Fishers/University of Victoria
Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.
Citizen scientists can use an iPhone app or online tool to log seahorse sightings to help seahorse conservation.
Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!
With the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey, and the belly of a kangaroo, seahorses look almost like mythical creatures, and their unique abilities make them no less fantastical. Seahorses have eyes that operate independently of one another, don skin that changes color, and exhibit a reversal of gender roles when it comes to pregnancy. Unfortunately, these interesting fish (seahorses are indeed fish!) are a threatened species as a consequence of habitat destruction and overexploitation. One of the challenges seahorses conservationists face is the lack of information on the 48 or so different varieties of seahorses, their populations and where exactly in the world’s oceans they live. Through Project iSeahorse, an online citizen science project with an accompanying iPhone app, users can turn their vacation seahorse sightings into important data for conservation efforts.
“iSeahorse sightings have already increased our understanding of where seahorses live,” says Tyler Stiem, communications manager of Project Seahorse, the marine conservation organization that runs iSeahorse. “Several species have been found by citizen scientists where they were either thought to be extremely rare or not even exist based on published literature. Knowing where a species lives is the first key to protecting its populations.” Just last month, two divers spotted a lined seahorse in Nova Scotia and used iSeahorse to report this rare occurrence in Canadian waters.
Users can create a simple account with iSeahorse and log in to add seahorse observations. The project asks for information regarding the type of seahorse encountered, when and where the sighting occurred, and the habitat it was found in. Users can also upload any photos taken to help identify the species observed. The iPhone app is also a great educational tool adorned with beautiful photos for users to learn more about the varieties of seahorses and their tell-tale characteristics. For example, the weedy pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi; top right image) found in Indonesian waters is a mere half-inch in length whereas the pot-bellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) can grow up to over a foot tall and has a protruding tummy, as its name suggests.
Conservationists recognize seahorses as a flagship species–a species that incites public interest to understand and protect an ecosystem. Likely due to their cute, cartoon-like appearances and quirky lifestyles, seahorses can be used to attract attention to marine environments in jeopardy that might otherwise be ignored. “Flagship species are also a surrogate measure of the health of their ecosystem, as a healthy ecosystem will harbor healthy populations,” Stiem explains. “If high levels of pollution or habitat degradation occur, seahorses will not survive. Therefore healthy seahorse populations mean healthy coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, all of which are important components of coastal ecosystems worldwide.” In addition, scientists perceive seahorses as a lens into better understanding of reproductive biology, since males uniquely carry offspring through the gestation period, and this poses another case for protecting the oceans’ biodiversity.
Project Seahorse also hopes to raise environmental awareness through their citizen science project and encourage practices that help protect the earth’s marine ecosystems. Seahorses are often exploited for their use in traditional medicines and as souvenirs. In addition, shrimp farming and trawling affect the seahorse population and contribute to habitat destruction. According to data from Project Seahorse, every year approximately 2.2 million seahorses are caught in trawl nets, and one pound of shrimp procured for human consumption reflects ten pounds of other marine organisms unintentionally ensnared. The more participation projects like iSeahorse gain, the better chance that legislation can be drafted to promote better harvesting practices to protect marine life.
So if you’re headed for a beach vacation this summer, consider downloading the iPhone app or creating an iSeahorse account to log seahorse sightings that you encounter!
Resources: Project Seahorse
Images: Top image courtesy of Wendy Hoevenaars/Guylian Seahorses of the World; bottom image courtesy of Sheetal R. Modi.
Sheetal R. Modi does research for a biotech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering where she focused on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. When she’s not tinkering with microbes, she enjoys science communication and being outside.
This Saturday June 21st, collect samples from bodies of water to catalog the ocean’s microbial biodiversity.
Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!
This Saturday June 21st, citizen scientists will be able to take part in MyOSD (official site) the citizen science component to this year’s Ocean Sampling Day (OSD). The event is organized by Micro B3 (Microbial Biodiversity, Bioinformatics and Biotechnology) a European cross-disciplinary multi-institute collaborative aimed at developing large-scale research efforts to forward marine biodiversity research. On OSD, scientists around the world will collect water samples in an effort to catalog the ocean’s microbial biodiversity. On the same day, citizen scientists will gather environmental and contextual data. Organizers say that this ‘snap shot’ of the Earth’s waters might be the ‘biggest data set in marine research that has been taken on one single day.’
Scientists are interested in marine microbes because of the role they played and continue to play in shaping our global environment. Microbes were critical to the evolution of life on the Earth. “Microbes were the first organisms evolving on Earth. When microbes developed the ability to photosynthesize, they began producing oxygen. This transformed the Earth’s early environment, making it hospitable to life,” explains Julia Schnetzer a graduate student at the Jacobs University and Max Planck Institute and the MyOSD coordinator.
“Today, marine microbes still produce more than fifty percent of the oxygen we need to breathe and consume fifty percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. In addition they are involved in key biological processes in the ocean system such as nitrogen fixation and the carbon pump.” Nitrogen fixation increases the availability of biologically accessible nitrogen by transforming atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium. The ocean’s carbon pump is a biological cycle which removes atmospheric carbon and sequesters it into organic materials deep inside the ocean. Several gigatons of atmospheric carbon are cycled into the oceans each year. “Their participation in these processes make microbes critical in shaping the climate of the planet and thus are essential to the health of our environment.”
OSD will help scientists understand microbe biodiversity and how microbes affect the environment. On the 21st of June, teams of scientists will take water samples at various locations and identify microbial content via DNA sequencing. Marine microbes are particularly challenging to raise in culture, which has hindered their study in the laboratory. However advances in high through-put DNA sequencing technology have made it more practical and cost effective to study marine microbes directly from their natural habitat. In addition to analyzing microbe content, scientists will be taking environmental and contextual data such as water salinity, mineral content, air and water temperature.
“The results from OSD will produce two sets of data especially useful for marine scientists. The data about microbial biodiversity will help us understand which species are present and what they are doing. The environmental parameters will give us an idea on how the microbes influence their environment and how the environment influences them,” says Schnetzer. All the collected data will go into a publicly available open source repository. Researchers and citizens can visit the OSD map to see the locations and the genomic, environmental, and contextual data from the sampled sites. The website provides a helpful tutorial on farming the data.
More areas sampled mean better resolution of our ocean’s picture. OSD organizers need citizen scientists to help fill in the gaps. If you live near a body of water, you can help collect environmental information such as location, time, and temperature. Even if it is just a small nearby stream, OSD organizers still want your data. If you own water sampling devices, or are willing to build your own like a simple Secchi Disk, you will be able to provide additional useful information such as water pH or transparency. Download the free OSD app (Android and iPhone compatible) to make submitting your measurements easier. Don’t have a phone? Just save the data and submit it later online. Find out details about contributing to the project, data gathering instructions and analysis kits here.
Organizers hope that by engaging citizen scientists it will provide a better understanding of the value of our oceans and the need to protect them. “The more citizen scientists support there is for MyOSD the better the event will become and the more emphasis can be placed on the importance of education and outreach in marine science in future OSDs,” says Schnetzer.
So this Saturday, go out, get wet and get some data!
 My OSD-OSD Citizen Science
 National Oceanography Centre – Biological Carbon Pump
Top Image: OSD-Micro B3
Bottom Image: megx
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.
We’ve waded through our database and come up with a boatload of marine-themed citizen science projects! Dive in!
Also, don’t forget to stop by DISCOVER Magazine and SciStarter’s online Citizen Science Salon; look for our new collaboration in the pages of Discover; or listen to beautifully produced citizen science stories from our partners at WHYY radio!
MyOSD-Ocean Sampling Day
On June 21st, during the summer solstice (the longest day in the northern hemisphere) join a local marine research team to collect data for an open-access data set to be used by marine scientists and others. Get started!
Whether you’re a diver, a fisher, a scientist, a seahorse enthusiast, or just on a beach holiday, you can help improve understanding of these animals by sharing your photos of seahorses! Get started!
Horseshoe Crabs as Homes
Horseshoe crabs play a key role in coastal ecosystems but they might also serve as substrate for many invertebrate species. Let’s find out what lives on Horseshoe crabs.Take and share pictures when you see them on the beach and aid research in the process! Get started!
The phytoplankton underpin the marine food chain, so we need to know a lot about them. To participate in this project to advance research about them, you’ll need to build a Secchi Disk, a tool that measures water turbidity, and use the free iPhone or Android ‘Secchi’ application to share data you collect. Get started!
Digital Fisher needs people to help analyze deep-sea videos — 15 seconds at a time. You’ll watch a short video of ocean life and click on simple responses to help identify what you are seeing. Get started!
Check out “Exploring a Culture of Health,” a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.
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