Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category
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.
Drag your bones toward more Halloween-themed citizen science! SciStarter has been paying attention to the zombee apocalypse from ZomBee Watch’s early days. Here are some important updates on the project and details on how you can get involved.
Have you noticed bees behaving in a strange ‘zombie’-like dazed manner near lights, especially at night? Then, they may be infected by a parasitic fly that affects their behaviour and ZomBee Watch, a project started by Professor John Hafernik and colleagues, needs your help. Until now, known infections had only happened on the west coast, but citizen scientists just recently spotted infected bees for the first time in New England, which means the infection is spreading.
Zombees were initially discovered at San Francisco State University by Professor Hafernik. “I first discovered infected honey bees by accident in late 2008 when I began noticing a large number of disoriented and dying honey bees on campus,” he said. After picking a few in a vial and leaving them for a few days, Professor Hafernik found small brown fly pupae inside the jar. “I sent a sample to Brian Brown at the Natural History Museum of LA County and he identified the flies as Apocephalus borealis,” said Professor Hafernik.
Later, Professor Hafernik figured it out that infected bees were leaving their hive at night, attracted to nearby lights. It turned out that flies can inject eggs into the abdomen of a bee, and when eggs hatch, small maggots start eating the bee’s flight muscles and internal organs. At some point, the bee’s behaviour changes as well and they feel compelled to fly at night. After leaving the hive, they live only for a few hours, and about five to seven days later, mature maggots emerge from the dead bee. “We’ve observed as many as 16 maggots emerging from a single bee,” said Professor Hafernik. “At this point there is no way to treat or prevent infection, but we hope that as we learn more about how flies recognize their hosts, that we can find a way to control infections.”
Professor Hafernik explained how this was an ideal project for citizen scientists. “Given the increasing public concern about declines in bees and the fact that infected bees showed such unusual behaviour that could be tracked by the public, crowd sourcing the project seemed like an excellent way to gather data quickly and for citizen scientists of all ages to make important contributions to research on honey bee health.”
Participants do not need any special background or training to get started. “We provide video and PowerPoint-based tutorials on our website to get them started,” said Prof Hafernik. If participants find zombees, they’re asked to place them in a jar, and take a photo to upload onto the website. It’s recommended to keep the bee for 7-10 days to confirm if maggots emerge. If they do, participants need to take another photo and again uploaded it to the website. For records in new areas, participants may be asked to send a sample by mail to double check identification.
This is an ongoing strategy and if you wish to participate, go to the website now and register. The window of opportunity to observe these bees is going to close very quickly as winter approaches, but there is still time to help with this project.
Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.
Drag your bones toward more Halloween-themed citizen science.
The snapper, the groper and the emperor—these are not synonyms for that nasty blind date you landed last month, nor do they form the lineup for a cast of Halloween characters. These are fish. In particular they are demersal species, which refers to a type of fish that thrives in the briny depths, living and feeding at the bottom of the sea. Along with the West Australian dhufish and the bight redfish, the pink snapper, baldchin groper and redthroat emperor are being monitored by the Western Australia Department of Fisheries.
Citizen scientists can help with the project Send Us Your Skeletons. In particular a breed of citizen scientists who are invested in the future of their pastime can help—recreational fishers.
The Fisheries Department needs to know if significant management changes they put in place a few years ago are helping stocks to recover. They are asking fishers to donate the frames of fish caught by anglers, for research purposes. A fish frame is more than a skeleton. It is the fish without the fillets, or conversely, the skeleton, head and guts.
The department is currently collecting skeletons along the whole of the West Coast Bioregion (between Kalbarri and Augusta as shown by a map). “This is to ensure that the samples are temporally and spatially representative,” said team leader Dr. David Fairclough. “The current collection period is this fiscal year—July 2013 to June 2014. The samples for this period will be used in our next stock assessment.”.
The department records the length, sex and reproductive stage of the fish, and then removes the otolith or ear-bone. Examination of the otolith enables them to determine the age of the fish. When scientists gather a large number of ear-bones, they are also able to calculate what proportions of fish of different ages there are in a stock. Age structure is an important indication of the health of a population, and knowing the age structure helps fisheries managers understand if the current fishing levels are sustainable. The short of it is: donate your fish skeletons to ensure good fishing in the future.
The number of demersal fish frames from the WCB donated by recreational fishers in 2010/2011 increased from the previous year with twice as many fishers taking part; up from 179 to 352. This was an important result—it indicated a greater awareness of the monitoring program. Over the three years from 2008 to 2010, the fisheries department also collected 1,562 dhufish, 3,392 snapper and 995 baldchin from the commercial sector. The number of frames donated has provided comprehensive data upon which stock assessments can be calculated.
The first assessment back in 2007 identified declining stocks of these three species. Significant changes to the way the department manages the West Coast Demersal Scalefish Fishery were introduced to help stocks recover. Since then, their most important objective has been to monitor the indicator species for signs of recovery. To assess the status of their stocks, the Fisheries Department relies on the recreational and commercial sectors’ support in donating fish skeletons. The more frames collected in each zone of the bioregion, the more confident they can be about the status of demersal species stocks. Previous assessments showed that overfishing of the demersal species had been occurring.
“We have just completed the stock assessments for our three indicator species for the west coast demersal scalefish resource—West Australian dhufish, Snapper and Baldchin groper. These assessments were based on fish frames donated by recreational and commercial fishers between 2008/09 and 2010/11. The results of the assessment will be released shortly,” said Fairclough. The science reports will also be available.
Recreational fishers can now contribute not only to the science-based setting of catch limits, but also to the fishing future of their children. A big fish isn’t always an old fish, and an old fish isn’t always a big fish. Donate the frames and you will not only be entered to win a prize—either fishing gear or a courtesy charter fishing trip—but you will be contributing to management of both the big fish and the old fish.
The department is also monitoring pink snapper, bight redfish and blue morwong in the South Coast Bioregion, and the nearshore species—Australian herring, tailor and whiting in both bioregions.
Watch the video below to see just how to remove the fillets from your fish.
Old Fish Table – West Coast Demersal Team, Western Australia Department of Fisheries
Tag – West Coast Demersal Team, Western Australia Department of Fisheries
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.
Drag your bones toward more Halloween-themed citizen science.
Growing up in the last green valley, I didn’t think too much about light pollution. We always brought flashlights trick-or-treating, and I can remember being afraid to go outside after sunset for fear of what could be hiding in the dark; we could always see the stars. After living in Boston, however, I realize that many people don’t get to experience this level of darkness, as light pollution in most urban areas is so intense that the constellations are obscured.
To help citizen scientists measure the light pollution around the globe, DDQ has developed an app called Dark Sky Meter. The app uses the camera of an iphone to measure sky quality, which is a meter for the darkness of the night sky. The app correlates the data from thousands of submissions world-wide and places them on a map. As Norbert Schmidt, the primary programmer describes, “We are creating a map of light pollution profiles, a high resolution map.”
As an amateur astronomer, Schmidt’s original motivation for designing the app was to help fellow star-gazers find the best places to set up their observations. He notes, “We don’t see stars anymore, any galaxies, or the milky way in city centers.” By creating an up to date database of the darkest areas, he and the DDQ team hope to create a “living map” of the best observation areas.
The data has more applications than astronomy too – scientists can use it to study the impact of light pollution on both humans and animals in the affected areas. Light pollution has been shown to disturb sleep quality and sleep cycles in humans, as well as disrupt migration patterns in other animals such as birds. More research needs to be done to fully understand these effects, and Dark Sky Meter can provide the necessary sky quality information to the scientists. The International Dark Sky Association, an organization dedicated to spreading awareness about light pollution, worked closely in developing the app with the goal of increasing the public’s knowledge of the problem and crowd-sourcing this valuable data for future studies.
So this Halloween, if you’re not too scared of the dark, get outside and measure the sky quality in your neighborhood. Your submission will contribute to the work of astronomers and scientists around the globe.
References: International Dark Sky Association
Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase, emilyannelewis.com.
Drag your bones on over to our favorite, spooky research projects just in time for Halloween.
Where is my Spider?
Share your photos of spiders. When we understand where spiders are living today, we will be better able to predict what may happen to spiders and agriculture in the future. Get started!
Help researchers find out where honey bees are being parasitized by the Zombie Fly and how big a threat the fly is to honey bees. Get started!
Dark Sky Meter
Combine your trick or treating with scientific data collection! The Dark Sky Meter (available for iPhones) allows citizen scientists to contribute to a global map of nighttime light pollution. Get started!
Send Us Your Skeletons!
Are you a recreational fisher in Western Australia?Send your fish skeletons to the Department of Fisheries Western Australia. Learn why and get started here!
This online citizen science project from Zooniverse invites you to take part in wildlife conservation by listening to and identifying recordings of bat calls collected all over the world. Get started!
SciStarter is 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, contact Lily@SciStarter.com.
If you’d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email firstname.lastname@example.org