Citizen science and why biodiversity is a great portal to discovery


(Image: Stemonitis) In case you don't have a handy dandy seaweed identification key, get your free one here and do some science.

Recently, a friend asked me about my earliest childhood memories, and two very vivid ones came to mind. First, there is this image of a sycamore seed falling from the sky; the aerodynamic wonder that can helicopter down from the tall heights of a tree. Second, and also involving the act of looking up, I remember seeing the underbelly of a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, suspended in air in the London Natural History Museum's great Mammal Hall. In fact, I remember thinking it was the most massive thing possible, no doubt reflecting my own childish perspective. It is also the the emotional reason of why I'm doing a sabbatical there.

In both cases, the memory relives not only what I saw, but also a sensation. This being a quickening of my heart, a very corporeal buzz, and a sense of clarity in my head that has stayed with me throughout my life. You see, this is what discovery feels like. And from an educator's point of view, this I think is biodiversity's greatest strength. The flora, fauna, and terrains of our graceful planet contain a whole world of discovery. It only takes a single child and a trip outdoors, to realize that it is arguably our planet's richest resource of intellectual query.

This is also why I think citizen science projects are particularly wonderful. Many of them do focus on wildlife spotting. And while there's obviously many caveats associated with these projects (i.e. can the non-expert provide valid observation), at their heart, they are a mechanism for people to get involved with science, and in a way which is meant to involve an element of relevancy (i.e. you're collecting data!) The fact that wildlife spotting also forces you to go outside is just an added bonus as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, the Natural History Museum has a few on the go that are just about perfect for folks who like going to the beach (The Big Seaweed Search) or hanging out in their garden (The Urban Tree Survey).

The seaweed one is pretty cool, just because I think the idea of knowing your seaweed is brilliant. Plus, who wouldn't want to help out the British Phycological Society? (definitely CV worthy).

The one involving urban trees is also interesting. Especially from the point of view that to scientists, the flora in everyone's backyard is a little bit of a black box. In other words, a biologist doing field work rarely gets the opportunity to examine what is growing on private land. This kind of data might be useful as a way of further equating a country's tree biomass, as well as exploring distribution patterns over time (i.e. is it changing, and if so, is there an interesting scientific question worth examining?) As an added bonus, this survey also has a pretty nice web friendly identification key you can use.

Anyway, in an effort to get just a few more people involved in citizen science, I've put up a new Science Scout badge. Game on!

Introducing the "who needs a post graduate degree? I can do science... CITIZEN SCIENCE!" badge (link).

Link to The Big Seaweed Search
Link to The Urban Tree Survey

NOTE: Although Maggie mentioned this a while back (and it's also been in the press generally), you should also totally (re)check out this other citizen science project called Foldit. Think of it as a polished video game for protein structure design, made for the Tetris mindhive.