NASA and SciStarter enlist citizen scientists for nationwide research that examines soil moisture conditions and water availability

By Editorial Team July 15th, 2015 at 8:00 am | Comment 1

ImageCredit: National Resource Conservation Service (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

National Resource Conservation Service (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Philadelphia, PA – NASA scientists are on a mission to map global soil moisture, and through SciStarter, they’re teaming up with citizen scientists to gather valuable data from the ground to complement and validate what is seen from space.

Known as the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite mission, the research will help scientists understand links among Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles; reduce uncertainties in predicting climate; and enhance the ability to monitor and predict natural hazards like floods and droughts. SMAP data have additional practical applications for citizens everywhere, including improved weather forecasting and crop yield predictions. Read the rest of this entry »

Categories: Citizen Science

I Used to Be A Moth Assassin. This is How I Fell In Love With Them

By Guest July 11th, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Comment

Photo credit: Sandra Lanman

Photo credit: Sandra Lanman

Turn on your porch light at night and bring out your inner citizen scientist. Record observations of moths for National Moth Week and help scientists understand these unique Lepidopterans.

Guest post by Sandra Lanman

I used to be a moth assassin. I’d grab the swatter or scream for my husband whenever one fluttered erratically inside the house.  Either way, that critter would not make it out alive. Then I met Dave Moskowitz and Liti Haramaty. I would be “saved,” and so would a lot of moths.

For years, I’d hung around my town’s Butterfly Park and shot photos of beautiful swallowtails, monarchs, great spangled fritillaries, American ladies and more. I never considered that moths hung out there too. I once spent days trying to identify a lovely little Lepidopteran I’d photographed by searching butterfly websites. Finally, a friend found it on a moth site. It was an eight-spotted forester. I had no idea moths could be so cute.

I first met Dave and Liti at the park, where we’d mostly talk butterflies. In 2011, they invited me to a moth night, promising I would have a blast. I was amazed. In the glow of mercury vapor lights, dozens of moths and other insects alighted on white sheets. Children were holding them, even putting them on their noses. No one had a swatter. Even I held a moth on my hand that night.

In late 2012, Dave and Liti asked for my help. That summer, they had founded National Moth Week as a project of the nonprofit Friends of the East Brunswick (NJ) Environmental Commission. They envisioned a citizen science project observed during the last full week of July that encouraged people to “turn on a porch light” and contribute their sightings to partner organizations like Project Noah, Encyclopedia of Life, BAMONA and others.

In its first year, National Moth Week exploded beyond the founders’ wildest expectations. Thanks to social media and their connections in the entomology and environmental worlds (Dave, an environmental consultant, is earning his Ph.D. in entomology at Rutgers and Liti is a marine researcher there), events were registered in 49 states and 30 countries. They knew I worked in public relations. Would I help them with communications? Of course!

Being on the NMW team has been an extraordinary experience because we are engaging people of all ages in a new learning experience. Moths have barely gotten any positive notice outside the entomology community, and certainly got little respect from most people. NMW is changing that.

National Moth Week invites people of all ages and abilities to learn about the beauty, diversity and ecological importance of these often maligned creatures. Their photos and observations add to the body of knowledge about Lepidoptera and scientists’ understanding about impacts of development or climate on their local habitats. Whether observing moths in their own backyards, or attending a local moth night, citizen scientists can easily become more knowledgeable about what to look for.

Hummingbird Moth (Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa CC BY SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Hummingbird Moth (Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa CC BY SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Social media has been a huge asset in spreading the word to new and experienced moth-ers. NMW is now growing organically, and we often learn about NMW events that are not registered on our site. We give all participants a certificate of participation and keep them informed about how it’s being celebrated around the world. Last year, Jacob Gorneau, 17, became our youngest team member, representing the young environmentalists we hope to inspire.

National Moth Week has been featured on NPR’s Science Friday, in The New York Times, Washington Post and on many news sites. Among our biggest supporters are science media, bloggers and moth-aficionados out there encouraging citizen scientists to get involved.

To keep it interesting, NMW focuses on a different family of moths each year. National Moth Week 2015 which runs from July 18-26 is the year of the Sphingidae family, which includes the commonly called hawk moths, sphinx and horn worms. The day-flying “hummingbird moth” is among the most interesting, and we hope to get a lot of sightings.

This year, we began a campaign to have the Automeris io, symbol of NMW, designated the official state moth of New Jersey. If the pending legislation is successful, New Jersey would be the first – and hopefully not the last – to designate a state moth!

“Moth-ers” of all ages and abilities are invited to register their own events or attend a nearby public event listed on the NMW website. Registration is free. Venues have included National Parks and Monuments; nature centers; state, county and local parks and recreation areas; museums, libraries and camps, as well as backyards everywhere. Every year, organizers get more creative, hosting “moth balls,” “malt, hops and moths,” “moth mania” events, and more.

Needless to say, I am no longer a moth assassin. I’ve attended lots of moth nights and I’m planning to set up my own outdoor lights soon, so I can enjoy mothing whenever I want.

For more information about moths and mothing and to participate in this global event, check out the National Moth Week on SciStarter. Follow National Moth Week on Facebook and Twitter @moth_week for updates!

A former print journalist, Sandra Lanman has been a professional communicator for more than 25 years, working in the arts, higher education and public broadcasting. She and the rest of the National Moth Week team are all volunteers.

Shark Week with a twist of citizen science!

By Editorial Team July 8th, 2015 at 7:00 am | Comment

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

It’s Shark Week! Do you know researchers need your help to learn more about these fascinating, underwater creatures?

Below, you’ll find five projects to help us learn more about sharks and what we can do to protect them.

Join us today at 2:00 PM ET for the next #CitSciChat, a Twitter discussion about citizen science, moderated by @CoopSciScooand sponsored by SciStarter.  Chat with project owners and researchers studying sharks!

Check out the SciStarter blog for updates on your favorite projects and find new projects in our Project Finder!

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Divers Attempt to Solve Mystery of Sevengill Shark Sightings on the Pacific Coast

By Ian Vorster July 7th, 2015 at 7:27 am | Comment

Sevengill Shark "Notorynchus cepedianus" by José María Pérez Nuñez

Sevengill Shark “Notorynchus cepedianus” by José María Pérez Nuñez CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Diver-citizen scientists help find out why there has been a recent increase in the number of Sevengill Sharks spotted in the San Diego area

The first thing the divers noticed upon reaching the bottom was that there were absolutely no fish—anywhere. The lighting, also being strange, lent everything a deserted, eerie feel. But, says diver Mike Bear, “We continued deeper into this spooky, yellowish-green ‘ghost forest’ with its odd, dearth of fish—failing to make the obvious connection in our minds: where had they all the fish gone and why? The previous week, this same area was overflowing with life. Sometimes the fish sense something you don’t.”

Bear and diving buddy Dave Hershman had just entered the water off Point La Jolla. Swimming eastward, separated by about 12 feet of water, quite suddenly a long dark shadow materialized between them, “moving at a good clip,” says Bear. It took a couple of seconds for him to register that this was a fast-moving shark. “By the time he had pulled slightly ahead of me, I saw the characteristic long tail of the Sevengill pass before my face, and from a couple of feet recognized the species.”

What exactly is the Sevengill shark? Filmmaker, diver and founder of the Sevengill citizen science counting project Barbara Lloyd says, “Well, here’s the boring response to that question—scientifically speaking it’s officially known as the Broadnose Sevengill shark, Notorynchus cepedianus, and it’s the only existing member of the genus Notorynchus in the family Hexanchidae!

This fairly large shark grows to about 11 feet, is speckled with gray or brownish spots, and has only seven gills on each side, which distinguishes it from the Bluntnose Sixgill shark. The Sevengill lives in tropical to temperate waters excepting for the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

With this post coinciding with Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the more important question might be—have there been any attacks, since such a large predator inhabits these shallow near-shore waters? “Only three suspected attacks have been documented in the last fifty years,” says Lloyd, “with the most recent being in New Zealand in 2009.” They do get aggressive when feeding, mating, are provoked, and interestingly enough in aquariums. “Prior to that the Shark Attack File shows that there have only been five since the 17th Century.”

Lloyd and Bear began the Sevengill Shark ID Project in 2010, after hearing numerous reports of local divers encountering them, reports that had not previously surfaced. “I had been diving regularly in the San Diego area since 2000, averaging about 100 dives per year,” says Bear, “mainly in the area of La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Cove, Wreck Alley and Point Loma, as well as being actively involved in the San Diego diving community. I do not recall hearing any diver reports of encounters with Sevengill sharks much before 2007—and then suddenly we began hearing the first reports from local divers,” he notes.

The project website began as a simple spreadsheet which allowed local divers to log their encounters without photos. From there it developed into the site you see today, which uses photographs and a pattern recognition algorithm to ID individual sharks. The motivation was to answer the scientific question: why was there an apparent increase in encounters between divers and this species from 2007 onward?

Dr. John Hyde a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in San Diego wonders if the answer to that question might just be that it is a combination of more Sevengill sharks congregating in the area, and more divers in the water. “Overall we don’t have a good sense for changes in abundance of Sevengill sharks, but it is likely that they are increasing in number since the 1994 moratorium on nearshore (within three miles) gillnet fisheries in California.” The nearshore gillnet fishery had a significant effect on abundance of many fish species, especially sharks and rays, both as direct mortalities and indirectly by removal of prey items. Hyde adds, “This coupled with increasing numbers of recreational divers, cheaper and better underwater camera systems, and increased awareness of these sharks through social media has led to better documentation of their presence.” Though sevengills are fairly common these days, especially in bay and nearshore regions, there is still a lot of research to be done.

“We want to know why sevengills have been attracted to the La Jolla area over the past five years,” says Bear. “Is it the ocean conditions, changing water temperature, has the location just developed into the ideal nursery or pupping ground, or is it particularly mating-related? There may be an increase in prey, or it could be a combination of a number of these?”

The project has amassed a sizable database of still photographs and video, but they are still in the early stages of data collection and evaluation, and have not published any results yet. Barbara Lloyd has had some success using the pattern recognition algorithm to identify individual sharks.

For all, the most sublime Shark Week sensation would also be the most benign—to be able to dive with these magnificent predators, to be in their presence as they glide majestically by.

Are you a diver who lives in the San Diego area? Help the Sevengill Shark ID project answer their questions! Visit the project page on SciStarter to sign up and learn how to enter your sightings according to the specified protocols.

It’s Shark Week! And that means we’re lining up shark themed citizen science projects that you can participate in. Sign up for our newsletter to know which projects are being featured and watch this space for more blog posts!

When disaster strikes, strike back with citizen science!

By Arvind Suresh (Editor) June 28th, 2015 at 3:41 am | Comment

Photo: USGS

Photo: USGS

Natural disasters can be devastating and terrifying but in some cases, there are things we can do to take control.

Here are a selection of citizen science projects designed to inform rescue efforts and related research.

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