Coop’s Scoop: Amphibian and Reptile Citizen Science on the next #CitSciChat

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Cuban Rock Iguana | photo by Staselnik

Cuban Rock Iguana | photo by Staselnik

There are millions of people taking part in citizen science across the world, and thousands of practitioners – scientists, educators, computer scientists, and activists – organizing citizen science projects. Citizen science has emerged as a new discipline, with novel ways of enabling scientific research, informing policy and conservation, and motivating learning.

New organizations, such as the Citizen Science Association, the European Citizen Science Association, and Citizen Science Network Australia, are helping practitioners connect with each other to solidify best practices and training. Other organizations provide cyberinfrastructure to help administer citizen science projects, like Zooniverse for online projects and CitSci.org and Wildbook for field projects. Other organizations, like Public Lab and Global Community Monitor, support grassroots citizen science. Still other organizations, like SciStarter, connect participants with projects.

To add one more way of connecting on citizen science, in January of this year, I started organizing and moderating monthly discussion sessions on Twitter about citizen science under the hashtag #CitSciChat. The largest hub of citizen science projects, SciStarter, enthusiastically sponsors #CitSciChat because our missions align to build bridges among practitioners and participants. Check out archived chats in Storify from January, February (gamification), March (spring), April (trees), May, June (oceans), and July (sharks).

Red Eft | photo by Jason Quinn

Red Eft | photo by Jason Quinn

In a question-answer format with guest panelists, I moderate discussion by raising most of the questions, but everyone is welcome to ask, answer, and follow-up on questions. There are common threads through each #CitSciChat. We explore the scientific, policy, and conservation impact of citizen science projects as well as learning and social outcomes. We chitchat about educational resources for teachers. We share approaches and philosophies to citizen science. We converse about motivations for participants and what types of data volunteers contribute. We discuss who uses the data for varied purposes and how accessible it is for public uses. We talk about transformative experiences and remarkable innovations associated with citizen science.

The theme of #CitSciChat this week is amphibian and reptile citizen science. Amphibians and reptiles, commonly called herps (as in herpetology, based on the Greek root herpet which means creeping), includes animals that hop and slither too, like frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, snakes, lizards, and turtles, to name a few.

Global trends in herpetofauna are troubling. According to the Global Amphibian Assessment, about one third of the 6,000 species of amphibians are at risk of extinction (for comparison, about 12% of birds and 23% of mammals are threatened species). Gibbons and colleagues reported in 2000 a déjà vu level of risk for reptiles. As with most biodiversity loss, the primary culprits are habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, disease, harvesting (for pets), and climate change. Citizen science helped detect some these trends and holds the potential to create conservation solutions.

Fortunately, there’s already a large community of herpetofauna aficionados around the world primed for citizen science. Unfortunately, people who like to find creeping critters don’t have the exact same traditions of natural history recording as, say, bird watchers. Namely, it is not universal to keep the same sort of checklists which are ideal for citizen science.

Last year, two professors at Utah State Univ, Ryan O’Donnell and Andrew Durso, published a paper about how to improve herpetological databases that rely on citizen science. They basically described a system a like eBird, but for cold-blooded spotted, stripped, and mottled herps.

Nevertheless, there are volunteers already contributing data on amphibians and reptiles and reporting these in over 65 citizen science projects. Over 40 of these citizen science projects focus solely on amphibians and/or reptiles. As O’Donnell and Durso explained, if more of these projects switch to checklists and encourage recording non-detections (i.e., what species are absent from a site), researchers will be able to better estimate population trends and distribution. Reporting non-detections, or absences, in addition to presence data makes for more robust insights.

O’Donnell and Durso also emphasized that many projects could be improved by requiring reporting information on volunteer effort (e.g., how much time spent searching and/or over how much area). Amphibian population size in a given area will naturally fluctuate wildly, and high annual variation makes it difficult to detect long-term trends. Detecting trends in relative abundance can be a little easier if participants report their effort.

Finally, O’Donnell and Durso encourage all projects to more actively encourage submissions. To recruit and retain participants to a project requires a type of engagement grounded in mutual understanding, communication, and with shared benefits. Building communities around herpetology research will help citizen science projects reach their full potential in herp conservation. Let’s talk about how on the next #CitSciChat.

Join us for #CitSciChat this Wednesday 5 August at 2pm ET, 7pm BST, and Thursday 6am NZST. With typically about 200 people tweeting, re-tweeting, asking and answering questions, and welcome you to add your voice to the vibrant discussions! Remember to include the hashtag #CitSciChat when you chime in so that everyone can follow the conversation.

Follow this week’s guest panelists:

The team of Greg Pauly, Richard Smart, & Miguel Ordenana (@NatureinLA) – for RASCals and GeckoWatch (both run through iNaturalist)

Chris Smith (@fieldzoologist) with HerpMapper, a global herp atlas (@HerpMapper)

Sean Sterret (@SeanSterrett) with the USGS

and hopefully Froglife (@froglifers), a herp conservation organization in the United Kingdom

 

Greg Pauly with RASCals citizen science

Greg Pauly with RASCals citizen science

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Citizen Science for herptile fans!

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Photo: Eva Lewandowski

Photo: Eva Lewandowski

Amphibians and reptiles, also known asherptiles or herps, are the focus of many citizen science projects.

If you like frogs, turtles, and salamanders, just to name a few, join one of the projects below to help us better understand the distribution and population status of these wonderful creatures!

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

Cheers!

The SciStarter Team


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California Dreaming

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Red-eared Slider (Photo by Gregory Pauly)

Red-eared Slider (Photo by Gregory Pauly)

Citizen scientists document in collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles help document reptiles and amphbians in Southern California to aid in conservation efforts. Find more information about participating in RASCals, the citizen science project on SciStarter and watch out for our herptile themed newsletter!

by Sharman Apt Russell

This June, I walked the wilds of Los Angeles looking for lizards. And snakes. And turtles. And because I was finally looking for them, I also began seeing them—and isn’t that a basic truth of life as well as  citizen science?

I visit Los Angeles for ten days twice a year as a teacher for the low-residency MFA graduate writing program at Antioch University. My time in nature is mostly spent in a few long runs near my hotel and in walking back and forth from the hotel to the university campus. This summer, wherever I went, I also took along my camera. I was on a mission for the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project—to document any reptile or amphibian I came across and to send that image to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
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The Salamander Crossing Brigades: Citizen Science for Salamanders in Southwest New Hampshire

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How about giving me a quick lift? Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) (Image credit: Dave Huth/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

How about giving me a quick lift? Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) (Image credit: Dave Huth/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Citizen scientists of the Salamander Crossing Brigades in New Hampshire help thousands of salamanders safely across dangerous roads in their migratory journey to the vernal pools. Find out how they contribute to conservation research by tracking and monitoring the salamanders on an annual basis.

Guest post by Brett Amy Thelen

Every spring, as the earth thaws and warm rains drench New England, thousands of amphibians make their way to vernal pools to breed. It’s a magical time. For the salamanders and frogs undertaking their annual migration, it’s also a dangerous one. One study in western and central Massachusetts found that roadkill rates on even relatively quiet roads could lead to extirpation of local spotted salamander populations in as few as 25 years. Another study reported that 50-100% of salamanders attempting to cross a paved rural road in upstate New York didn’t survive the trek. 
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NASA and SciStarter enlist citizen scientists for nationwide research that examines soil moisture conditions and water availability

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Image Credit: 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.
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Divers Attempt to Solve Mystery of Sevengill Shark Sightings on the Pacific Coast

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

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!

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts – the world’s leading climate change think tank. He has worked as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science communication, and now runs a consultancy where he functions in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian‘s work at dragonflyec.com.

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Coop’s Scoop: Shark citizen science, on the next #CitSciChat

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shark on Kronos Reef, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; photo by Wyland

shark on Kronos Reef, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; photo by Wyland

After the blockbuster movie Jaws, two silly things happened: kids started calling me Hooper (instead of Cooper) and I was afraid even in the deep end of a swimming pool. Logic can battle fear, but not necessarily win. Even though there are hundreds of species of sharks, and about 20 types that ever harm people, a fin in the water elicits screams. People should be cautious and smart when in waters with Great White sharks, just as they should be when hiking in areas with Grizzly bears or Mountain lions. Just as they should be cautious when driving, when choosing foods, and going down stairways. There are hazards everywhere.

But we shouldn’t let fear, or the aesthetics of beauty determine conservation priorities. People tend to be sympathetic to a relatively few “poster species” for conservation even though most species in need of conservation actions are not generally considered cute, cuddly, or obviously useful.  Even though many species of sharks are near extinction, I realize that my own conservation orientation is dampened by fear, despite knowing that people are at far greater risk of death from lightning than sharks. On top of that, sharks are the ones with more reason to be afraid because people kill tens of millions of sharks annually.

For me, only fascination can lessen my fear and spark my conservation concern. As  Irish poet James Stephens put it, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”

Fortunately, sharks are fascinating. Sharks have a sixth sense, electroreception, through an organ called the ampullae of Lorenzini. They also have what could be called a seventh sense: their lateral line organ acts like an internal barometer so they can sense tiny changes in pressure from passing objects. With eyes on the sides of their heads, sharks have nearly panoramic views, with blind spots only in front of their snout and directly behind their head. Plus, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The dwarf shark is only about 4 inches long, which makes it cute. Some sharks give birth to live offspring, called pups, which, again, seems pretty cute. Other species lay egg cases with the nickname mermaid’s purses: adorable. Some sharks are social, and forms schools and migrate together. Almost 50 species of sharks have photospheres, which are light-emitting organs.

There are over 1,000 species of elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) and 24% of are on IUCN red list, meaning they are threatened by extinction. One major challenge to shark conservation is the fear factor that limits public concern. Their biology challenges to their conservation too: they have naturally low population densities and their large home ranges often span the coasts of multiple countries. Another challenge is that, for almost half the species, there is not enough information to assess their extinction risk. The data gap on so many species across the world has been a call to citizen science. Now there are projects that draw on recreational divers, dive guides, photographers, beach goers, and more.

whale shark 2014 by Nicholas Lindell Reynolds

whale shark 2014 by Nicholas Lindell Reynolds

For example, divers and guides monitor shark numbers in Sharkscount. Divers photograph whale sharks in Philippines as part of the Large Marine Vertebrates Project. From photos of whale sharks, researchers can use pattern recognition software (originally developed by NASA) to identify individuals based on their unique spots and stripes. Whale shark photos aggregated in Wild Book for Whale Sharks allow researchers to estimate their abundance. Recreational divers help Redmap in Western Australia to map the abundance and distribution of sharks.

Other citizen scientists stroll the beaches and search for mermaid’s purses. The locations where these egg cases wash up on shore can help identify potential nurseries and assess shark abundance and distribution. For example, in the UK and Italy, citizen scientists find egg cases of Smallspotted Catsharks and Nursehounds.

egg case of a lesser spotted dogfish by Tom Oates 2009

egg case of a lesser spotted dogfish by Tom Oates 2009

Irrespective of whether you feel a connection with sharks based on fear or fascination, we need to recognize that they are part of healthy ocean ecosystems.

If you like sharks or if you suffer from galeophobia (an excessive fear of sharks), join us for the next #CitSciChat, a Twitter discussion about citizen science. This week, which is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, we’ll talk about citizen science with sharks. What people do, why they do it, and why this means YOU!

The #CitSciChat will be Wednesday 8 July 2pm EDT, 7pm BST, 8pm SAST, which corresponds to Thursday 9 July 6am NZST.

Sharks live around the world and so do our guest panelists:

Rebecca Jarvis (@Rebecca_Jarvis) a graduate student in New Zealand.

Katie Gledhill (@KatGledhill) with the South African Shark Conservancy and Earthwatch shark project.

David Shiffman (@WhySharks Matter) a graduate student at University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy

Jake Leveson (@SCBMarine & @jacoblevenson), a marine biologist at the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and  Education Officer with the Marine section of the Society of Conservation Biology.

Jason Osborne (@paleoexplorer), President and Cofounder of Paleo Quest (@paleoquest), and Cofounder of SharkFinder citizen science (@shark_citsci)

Catalina Pimiento (@pimientoc), a PhD candidate in the U of Florida (defending this Friday!). Her research investigates the ecology of sharks in deep time. Next month she begins a post doc fellowship at the Paläontologisches Institut und Museum in Zurich, Switzerland.

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Did you know ‘storm spotters’ in your community keep you safe during severe weather?

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Hurricane shown on a weather radar (Photo: NOAA)

Hurricane shown on a weather radar (Photo: NOAA)

Civic minded citizen scientists in your community help meteorologists and the National Weather Service stay abreast of inclement weather with on-the-ground data.

Earlier this week, the Midwest and Northeast were slammed with tornados and thunderstorms that grounded planes and held up trains. Thousands of people along the Northeast corridor lost power as a result.

During such hazardous weather, we rely on the knowledge, skill and expertise of meteorologists and designated emergency personnel to keep us safe and in the know. They in turn rely on data supplied by not just satellites and doppler radars but also – a network of citizen scientists.

But wait. With all our sophisticated technology, what could a few volunteers possibly contribute?
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Citizen Science of the Deep Blue Sea

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For centuries, the lives of sailors were full of risks from shipwreck by storms, currents, and navigation of poorly charted waters. To cope with the risk, sailors believed in numerous omens that brought bad luck, like sharks and bananas or failing to set sail on a Sunday (or setting sail on a Thursday, Friday, first Monday in April, or second Monday in August). Sailors believed in jinxes from cutting hair, trimming nails, or shaving beards, stirring tea with a knife or fork, and 13 was uttered as 12+1. Sailors had good luck superstitions too, like being followed by dolphins or seeing an albatross.

Chatham Albatross by Dan Mantle

Chatham Albatross by Dan Mantle

They may have felt helpless and at the whim of the high seas, but sailors did possess the capacity to reduce their risks, not through superstitions, but through science.

With the help of Matthew Maury, the observations, records, and data collected by sailors during their journeys were aggregated to produce navigation maps of trade wind, thermal charts, and prevailing currents. The root of their risk was a lack of scientific understanding of the oceans. Citizen science and crowdsourcing approaches made Maury the father of Oceanography and made travel by Navy and commercial mariners saver, faster, and more efficient.

Today recreational fishers, commercial fishers, divers, beachcombers, surfers, sailors, and local community members concerned about marine resources are citizen scientists monitoring oceans and marine life. Whether turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, invasive fish and  seaweed, scallops, coral, seabirds, or pollution, citizen scientists across the world provide the large scale and long term data on different stressors to help research, management, and policy. Even without getting wet, participants in the Zooniverse help marine sciences with identifying species on sea floor in Sea Floor Explorer, identifying plankton species from microscopic images in Plankton Portal, and estimating changes in kelp forests from satellite images in Floating Forests.

baby sea turtle by Wildlifeppl

baby sea turtle by Wildlifeppl

Citizen scientists help with research, management plans, and provide evidence for marine policy, which requires years of data over wide geographic areas, as reviewed in recent policy paper by Hyder et al. (@kieranhyder). “Large scale at low cost” is citizen science’s middle name.

Join the next #CitSciChat, a Twitter chat for discussion of citizen science, which will have the theme of oceans and marine life. Wednesday June 24 at 7pm GMT, which is 2pm ET at the hashtag #CitSciChat.  Our guest panelists sail in Maury’s wake by supporting citizen science that helps makes us safer. In this case, safety resides in ocean conservation, to which our future is intertwined.

I’m the moderator (@CoopSciScoop) and you can follow our guest panelists (details below), who are joining us from the California, Western Australia, Hawaii, and the United Kingdom.

J Nichols (@WallaceJNichols) of California Academy of Sciences, Grupo Tortuguero (an international sea turtle conservation network), and LiVBLUE!, a global campaign based on the neuroconservation findings of the cognitive and emotional benefits of blue space. Nichols is author of Blue Mind.

Catalina López-Sagástegui (@@Catlosa_), program coordinator for the Upper Gulf of California Program at UC MEXUS, where she coordinates government officials, NGOs, local communities, and fishermen on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border to design effective conservation and fisheries management.

Richard Kirby (@planktonpundit) of the Secchi Disk Study to map the spatial distribution and temporal trends in phytoplankton in the oceans. Phytoplankton are too small to see with the naked eye, but when present, they turn the water a green hue and their density affects the clarity of the water. Volunteers measure water clarity with Secchi Disks as proxy for phytoplankton density.

Michael Burgess (@RedmapMarine) of REDMap (Range Extension Database & Mapping Project), which the eBird of the marine world, to report sightings of any marine animal, anywhere, anytime (though they focus on the distribution of uncommon species).

Matt Cough of Welsh Sea Watch (@WelshSeaWatcher) where bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoise, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, minke whales, fin whales, and killer whales are monitored by volunteers on land and with boat-based surveys.

Mike Bear (@Rapturedeep) of Ocean Sanctuaries, sponsor of the Yukon Marine Life Survey, which does not involve diving near Yukon, Alaska. It involves divers taking photos of invertebrates around the artificial reef created in 2000 by the purchase, cleaning, and intentional sinking of the Canadian warship Yukon. This artificial reef attracts marine life, tourists, and citizen scientists to San Diego. It was surveyed in 2004 and now 2015 is a follow-up survey year.

diver in kelp forest by Ed Bierman

diver in kelp forest by Ed Bierman

 

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Celebrate the Summer Solstice with Citizen Science!

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AlastairG / Creative Commons

AlastairG / Creative Commons

Our editors have selected some sizzling citizen science projects in celebration of Summer Solstice on June 21. Several are also appropriate for kids of all ages (keep those minds sharp over the summer break!).

And…our friends at Mental Floss featured“15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Summer Solstice,” including this fact:

“The Earth is at its furthest from the sun during the Summer Solstice.The warmth ofsummer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time.”

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


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