Posts Tagged ‘citizen scientist’


Well, I had a treat last week! I went to watch horseshoe crabs being tagged for research — kind of like birdbanding, but for crabs. The woman with the funny expression above was actually enjoying the whole thing and helping to take notes for the scientist, Kim Gaffett.

Kim, who may be best known to New Shoreham visitors for birdbanding, has been working for some years with Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University on an initiative called the Limulus Project. The idea is to learn more about the amazing horseshoe crab, a species that, depending on whom you ask, has managed to survive between two and five mass extinctions on Planet Earth, including the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

In spite of their amazing record of survival, the crabs are considered threatened today, so it’s important to study them and try to find out what’s going on. As I wrote a few years ago, their blood has the ability to clot in the presence of bacteria, so it has become invaluable to pharmaceutical companies. Researchers are supposed to draw the blood as one would for a human and then have the fishermen return the crabs to the ocean, but that may not be happening consistently.

I asked Kim how she knew she would find any crabs that particular morning, and she told me that when there is a high tide and a full moon in June (flood tide), the horseshoe crabs come up to the shore to mate. The male has one claw like a boxing glove, with which he attaches to the female’s shell in order to be available when she drops her eggs. The eggs are fertilized outside the body. Sometimes other males are hanging around, and it’s possible for one batch of eggs to get fertilized by more than one male.

All sorts of marine life forms attach themselves to horseshoe crabs — seaweed, barnacles, slipper shells. Kim calls the crabs “their own ecosystem.” The crabs’ fellow travelers don’t usually cause any trouble, but as you can see below, a quahog had snapped onto a claw of one crab. A citizen scientist is shown detaching it.

From Phys.org, I read this about horseshoe crabs’ survival: “They have a special kind of blood, which … coagulates when it encounters bacteria. They can ‘wall up’ any wounds they receive.

“Another key to their survival seems to be their tolerance of habitats that fluctuate in salinity (levels of salt). When environmental changes happen, they can move to safety.

“An ability to live with low levels of oxygen is also important. [Natural History Museum expert Richard Fortey] adds, ‘The horseshoe crab was able to cope with periods of oceanic deoxygenation that were fatal to many marine organisms.’ ”

I was also interested in what Quartz had to say: “These amazing crab species are among the handful of species referred to as ‘living fossils’ because their current form resembles those found in the fossil record. Externally at least, the crab hasn’t changed much in nearly 450 million years. In that time, it has survived all five of Earth’s great mass extinctions, the worst of which killed off an estimated 95% of all marine species, and the most recent of which did away with the dinosaurs. …

“The crab’s blue blood contains a chemical called limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), which thickens when it comes in contact with toxins produced by bacteria that can cause life-threatening conditions in humans. Labs use LAL to test equipment, implants, and other devices for these toxins.”

Kim says she hopes labs will start using the synthetic version of LAL more and give the horseshoe crab a break.

Note the tag below. Kim found one crab with a tag from a previous year, and she attached another tag to a newer find.




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Photo: Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
Australian wetlands researchers behind the Feather Map invite citizen scientists to send feathers and include an explanation of where the feathers were found.

I recently saw a great quote on twitter from a Rhode Islander about what he learned years ago when he visited post-apartheid South Africa: “I learned that the power that you have to change big things is entirely about how strong of a community you can form.”

That quote came to mind as I was reading about how researchers in Australia are enlisting the enthusiasm of citizen scientists to address the challenges of wetlands protection. That may not sound as important as ending apartheid, but wetlands are expected to play a big role in the fight against global warming.

Livia Albeck-Ripka had a report at the New York Times.

“One day in April 2016, Kate Brandis opened a weathered envelope, mailed to her from suburban Sydney. Instead of a letter inside, she found the feathers of an Australian white ibis. A day or so later, another envelope arrived, stuffed with more feathers. In the days following, more began to come.

“Soon, Dr. Brandis, who is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Center for Ecosystem Science, was receiving three to four envelopes a day containing the feathers of birds from across Australia, including those of pelicans, wood ducks, cormorants, herons and spoonbills. …

“Two years before, she had put out a call to the public to send her fallen feathers of wetland birds so she could analyze where they came from, in an effort to map how the birds are moving between the country’s disappearing wetlands. …

“Wetlands — which include swamps, marshes, lakes, mud flats and bogs — are biodiverse ecosystems that can improve the quality of water and mitigate damage from flooding and pollution. But since the beginning of the 20th century, some estimates say, more than half the world’s wetlands have been lost, largely because of human activities. …

“Now, the impacts of climate change — which can include less rainfall in some areas, changing river flows and flood patterns, and potential saltwater intrusion into inland bodies of water — are further threatening some of Australia’s wetlands, and the birds that rely on them for breeding. …

“ ‘When our floodplains flood, which is only every couple of years, these birds come together in the hundreds of thousands to breed,’ Dr. Brandis said. But when the water recedes, the birds disband. …

“Where do the birds come from, and where do they go afterward? ‘Because we don’t track our birds, we have no idea,’ she said.

“Traditional tracking methods, like banding birds, have not fared well in Australia. … Many birds, like the ibis, have a high mortality rate. Another factor is simply Australia’s size: Inland birds often go to places where people do not.

“For that reason, Corrie Kemp, a 73-year-old retiree from Queanbeyan, New South Wales, made a special effort to collect feathers for Dr. Brandis’s project from among the most remote corners of Australia, in western Queensland. ‘We made a point of going places where no other people where going,’ Mrs. Kemp said, adding that she and her husband, Peter, had devoted an entire three-month trip to collecting feathers, during which she kept a diary of her discoveries and often corresponded with Dr. Brandis. …

“Bird feathers, like human hair and nails, are made of a protein called keratin. As the feathers grow, the keratin keeps a record of the bird’s diet, much like the rings of a tree. By analyzing a section of a feather, Dr. Brandis and her team can get a snapshot of the bird’s diet while the feather was developing.

“Feathers from chicks — which have spent their entire lives at one wetland — are particularly useful to researchers, providing what Dr. Brandis and her team call a ‘fingerprint’ of each place. By comparing the diet record of adult feathers against this information, researchers hope to map which wetlands the birds have been using, and how healthy those wetlands are. …

“Dr. Brandis said the possibilities were endless when studying animals’ tissue for clues about their environments, their habits and their origins. ‘It’s like the tip of the iceberg.’ ”

Read more about the Feather Map of Australia here and here.

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