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California Condor Science

The California Condor once numbered only 22 bi...

The California Condor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s get this out of the way early—the California condor is not the prettiest of birds. With a wingspan of as much as 10 ft (3 m) and a weight of around 25 lbs (12 kg), it’s scary big. However, it performs an important function in our environment as a scavenger bird, eating carrion, or dead animals.

Those dining habits, however, are making it difficult to conserve the species. Condors end up eating a lot of lead in the form of bullet fragments in the carcasses of animals hunted with lead ammunition. This means that condors frequently suffer from lead poisoning. Lead is toxic to most organs and tissues in the body; symptoms of lead poisoning in humans can include pain, confusion, headache, and irritability, as well as seizures, coma, and death. Condors also suffer from DDT poisoning, problems with habitat destruction, and poaching.

Condor Watch is a new project designed to help protect this important bird. As part of a plan to both help and study the condor, uncontaminated animal carcasses are put out for the birds to feed on at feeding stations across the state of California. While the condors are eating, remotely triggered cameras snap photos to try to capture the tag number of each condor and observe their behavior around the carcass. Researchers would like you to sift through hundreds of thousands of photographs to help them better understand the social interactions and individual personalities of condors. Yes, you read that right—you too can be a condor psychologist.

Participating is easy: once you’ve registered at the project site, you simply identify all the animals in a photo, and then, whenever possible, provide the tag ID. A tutorial on the site will walk you the procedure for tagging the images.

An added bonus to this project is that you’ll get to enjoy, virtually at least, a lot of California sunshine in the process!


Citizen science games: the ultimate list


Play games for science!  Screenshot Credit: Fraxinus

This week, by request: a huge list of games you can play and enjoy while contributing to the greater good. Go have fun!

Astro Drone – Created by the European Space Agency, fly your Parrot AR drone in virtual space and compare yourself with real-life astronauts. Data from your successful flights will be used to train robots on how to navigate their environment. Website: iTunes:

Apetopia – Run over a landscape and then choose the door with the colour that best matches the sky at that moment. Collect coins and avoid obstacles too. The game helps determine perceived color differences; player choices are used to model better color metrics. Website:

Beat the Bots – Are you smarter than a spambot? VouchSafe has built an anti-spam program that uses the way humans think to try to outsmart spammers. Draw a line with your mouse to join an object to its best match, or circle the object that doesn’t belong. Yeah, okay, this isn’t really citizen science, but defeating spam is definitely for the greater good, don’t you think? Facebook:

Cell Slider – Join the effort to defeat cancer by reviewing images to spot cancer cells.

Collabio – Participate in social psychology research. Collabio is a Facebook application that wants you to guess tags that other friends have used to describe an individual. Points are awarded according to the number of other friends who have agreed with each tag. Facebook:

Cropland Capture – Want to help improve the world’s food security? Help to improve basic information about where cropland is located on the Earth’s surface. Website:

Dizeez – Help researchers link various genes to diseases. The game is very simple: You are shown one gene name, and five diseases. Pick the disease that is linked to the gene to get points, and get as many points as you can in one minute. Website:

Eterna – A beautiful visual puzzler. Help design RNA strands in this wonderfully rendered game. Website:

Eyewire – Another gorgeous looking game, this one has you mapping and manipulating neurons in 3D. Gameplay helps researchers discover how neurons connect and network to process information. Website:

Foldit – Solve puzzles involving protein molecules. Knowing the structure of a protein is key to understanding how it works and to targeting it with drugs. Website:

Fraxinus – Help scientists learn why the ash tree is susceptible to a fungus with this Candy Crush-like puzzler. Facebook:

Forgotten Island – An explosion has destroyed the island’s biology lab and scattered living specimens across the strange landscape. A robot named DOC73R-CY3N53 demands that re-classify his specimens and rebuild the island. Website:

Happy Match – In this one, players participate in scientific research by playing a card/memory style game, classifying photos of animal, plant and insect species (currently moths, rays, and sharks.) Website:

Malaria Hunters – Diagnosing a single case of malaria can take up to 30 minutes of a technician’s time, and drastically slows down a health care system’s ability to respond to an outbreak. This game aims to create a global network of “spotters” to speed this process up. iTunes:

Martian Map Room – Help secure the future of humanity by exploring a potential home away from home. Explore Mars and help map it in the Martian Map Room by NASA.

NanoDoc – This game wants you to design new nanoparticle strategies and nanovehicles to kill tumors. One of the biggest problems in cancer therapy, for example, is knowing what dose to give. Too little and you don’t kill the cancer. Too much, and you start killing healthy tissue. Playing this game refines our understanding. Website:

MOLT – Help diagnose pathologies by examining microscopic data. This game has proven that non-professional gamers diagnosed malaria infected red-blood-cells with an accuracy within 1.25% a trained professional. All you need to do is spot and click on an infected blood cell. Website:

OneUp – This is a two-player metatagging game, and the best description entered wins. By tagging in this game, you are helping to preserve archival images, videos, and audio clips for future generations. iTunes:

OpenCorporates – Help keep big corporations accountable by datamining their SEC filings. Website:

Play to Cure™: Genes in Space — Collect a fictional substance dubbed Element Alpha, which is really genetic cancer data. Map a route through the densest parts of the Alpha, shoot asteroids to collect points and upgrade your ship. iTunes: Google Play:

Phlyo – This game contributes to genetic research. Move colour blocks on the screen to match patterns and come up with new combinations. Website:

Phrase Detectives – A language annotation game. Help researchers create a linguistic resource by noting the relationships between words and phrases; this helps train future generations of language tools. Earn points, get promoted, and see your name on the leaderboard. Website: Facebook:

Project Nightjar – Help scientists learn more about human perceptual abilities by trying to spot nightjars (birds) or their nests. Website:

Pyramid Tag – This is a single-player image tagging game, where the best descriptions win. This metadata game gathers new information about archival materials. By playing this one, you make it easier to for the world to find and use digital media from collections in libraries, museums, and universities. iTunes:

Quantum Moves – Help build a quantum supercomputer. Every time you play, your mouse movements simulate laser beams used in a real quantum lab to move atoms onto their correct pathways. Achieve the best scores in “QComp” and “Beat AI” labs to win. Website:

The Cure – A biology-based card game where you try to assemble the best hand to win. The combos you make actually help researchers make better predictions about breast cancer, e.g., whether a cancer will metastasize and how quickly. Website:

Train Robots – Help robots become as smart as humans. Players teach the robot how to move blocks using clear and correct commands. Website:

Wordrobe – Play a word game and help improve the Groningen Meaning Bank (GMB), which in turn will improve natural language software tools. Website:


Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments below!








Sites mentioned in the citizen science TEDx talk

By popular request: many of you have written to ask me to do a summary post of all the sites I mention in this TEDx talk, and I’m only too happy to oblige. Here they are in one convenient (and clickable!) place.

The crowdfunding site is


Zooniverse (lots of web-based citizen science projects)

Old Weather:

Seafloor Explorer:



Apps: Look for these in the iTunes store or the Google Play store: Instant Wild, Sound Around You, Loss of the Night, Hummingbirds@Home

Marine Debris Tracker:

Bee-friend your Garden:

Native Buzz:

Monarch Watch:

Shark Finder: