Wanna Watch a Wildebeest?

The only place where no gnus is not good gnus.
The only place where no gnus is not good gnus.

Project: Wildebeest Watch

Human beings love to watch things moving in lockstep. We enjoy marching bands and synchronized swimming, and we are particularly entranced by our cousins in the animal world. A murmuration of starlings, for example, can be mesmerizing.

Inevitably, no matter what we’re watching, the same question comes to mind: how do animals know which way to go when moving en masse? Or, better yet, how do they not all crash into one another?

It’s an important question, because many animals move in groups, and in cases where they are being pursued by predators, being able to move in a group effectively means the difference between life and death. No where is that more true than for the wildebeest, the perennial favourite of lions and hyenas.

Scientists would love to know more about the ‘collective intelligence’ of wildebeests (also known as gnus), and want to know how they use group movements to maximize their chances of finding food while staying safe. They’ve gathered images of wildebeests from a project known as Snapshot Serengeti, and now they need your help sorting the pictures. You can either mark the directions of the shadows (for calibration purposes) or the direction of the wildebeest.

“We combine your answers about where the sun and shadows are with the timestamp on the photo to calculate the camera direction,” explains the site, led by Ali Burchard. “Then we’re able to turn the left, right, towards, and away wildebeest markings into compass directions for the computer simulation models.”

To participate, sign into the wildebeest project using your existing Zooniverse login (or create one), and follow the classification instructions on screen. Try to resist breaking out into songs from The Lion King soundtrack while you work.



Hang Out With Penguins (Hot Chocolate Optional)

What you lookin' at? "Falkland Islands Penguins 63" by Ben Tubby - flickr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Falkland_Islands_Penguins_63.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Falkland_Islands_Penguins_63.jpg
What you lookin’ at?
Photo credit: Ben Tubby  via Wikimedia Commons

Project: Penguin Watch

It’s cold in Antarctica. I mean really cold. The mean temperatures of the coldest months are −20 to −30 °C on the coast and −40 to −94 −40 to −70 °C in the interior; the best summer time temperature you can hope for on the coast is around 0°C. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy place to do research; in addition to the extreme temperatures and remoteness, it’s also very ecologically sensitive.

That’s why scientists want to make the most out of information collected from the region, and why they need your help. Luckily, you can do so from the warm comfort of your own home.

In a new project, Penguin Watch, you’re being asked to look at and annotate images taken of the area. You’ll be asked to identify eggs, baby penguins, and adult penguins. You will also mark other animals nearby, so that researchers get a good idea of how often they interact.

The photographs come from a network of 50 satellite-linked cameras along the Antarctic Peninsula, near colonies of Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adélie, and King penguins. In addition to providing annotations for researchers to work on in the short term, your efforts here will help train image-processing algorithms, so that computers will be able to do this job in the future.

This is a Zooniverse project, so if you have already participated in things like Ancient Lives, Whale FM, or Old Weather, you already have a login. If not, register here to go get some happy feet, and not cold feet!

How to Become an Archeologist

"20091105 Belfort (0013)" by Donar Reiskoffer - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“20091105 Belfort (0013)” by Donar Reiskoffer – via Wikimedia Commons

Even before the Indiana Jones movies came out, archeology had broad popular appeal. The tools of the trade seemed simple, and the possibilities it held out (Maybe I’ll find a fortune in treasure! Maybe I will make a famous discovery!) were seductive. Add to the mix the allure of exotic destinations, and you have a hard-to-resist package. I am sure that archeology departments worldwide were inundated with calls from Jones wannabes after that first movie hit the silver screen.

Of course, in this now Internet-connected day and age, we (should) know that the reality is a lot different. Genuine archeology involves a lot of slow, painstaking work, and it is far more likely to yield potsherds than it is gold and gems. That said, archeology remains fascinating because it involves the discovery and telling of our favourite story: our own.

So, if you’ve always been interested in archeology, there are several ways you can get involved, even if you haven’t yet been formally trained.

Learn about archeology

A site called Archeology Expert is a great place to start. A good, concise, all-around resource on the field, it explains the history and types of archeology, and has a section on theory and terminology. There is even has a section on how to get into archeology as a hobby.

Meanwhile, Coursera is offering a MOOC on archeology called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets, which talks about the field, what’s involved, and dispels some myths. And this portal lists a number of other free archeology courses, some broad, some very specific.

If you really want to get serious about your archeology education, there are a number of accredited distance learning options available. The Council for British Archeology lists several options here.

Believe it or not, there are actually quite a few popular magazines solely devoted to archeology. There’s Archeology Magazine, World Archeology, Popular Archeology, British Archeology, and even one for kids called Dig Magazine.

In the US, there’s an organization called the American Society for Amateur Archeologists, which offers a journal in which you could be published, occasional expeditions for fieldwork, and several books of interest laymen scholars. You can even get amateur certification via a National Park Service program.

Go on an archeology dig

Once you’ve worked your way through the material above, it might be time to participate in real expeditions as a volunteer.  For example, the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin (AFOB)  is one of the largest fieldwork resources in the world, and has hundreds of listings for archaeological projects.

Of course, amateur archeology is not for the faint of heart or the arachnophobe, as digging often means disturbing large and possibly venomous creatures, as this post suggests. If you would prefer to contribute to the field without getting bitten or dirty, you might consider some of the history related Zooniverse projects like Ancient Lives.



Plankton: A Critical Link in the Food Chain

A copepod (Calanoida sp.) from Antarctica ca. ...
A copepod from Antarctica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If ever you’ve watched any natural history shows on TV, you’ve almost certainly heard the term plankton. But have you ever seen plankton? Do you know what they do?

“Plankton” actually refers to a group of creatures that float or drift in the the ocean. There are phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). Small phytoplankton make up the start of the food chain: they are consumed by larger plankton, and then those plankton are eaten by larger organisms, and so on, all the way up to fish and whales. For example, phytoplankton are consumed by krill, which are in turn consumed by blue whales … in quantities of up to 3,600 kilograms of krill a day. Put simply, if there are no plankton, there’s no life in the ocean.

A new Zooniverse project, called Plankton Portal, wants to get a much better understanding of where (at what depths, and in what kinds of environments) various kinds of plankton live, and what species distribution looks like. To that end, the Portal wants you to classify what you see in images taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS). That device contains not only cameras but sensors to measure depth, salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, light level, and chlorophyll levels.

After completing a tutorial, you’ll be put to work measuring and classifying images of these oddly-beautiful creatures. Don’t worry if you don’t know your copepod from your doliolid yet. Not only do the classification tools come with a field guide, other citizen scientists will be looking at the images you have as well, so that everyone’s work is double-checked. Have fun!