Keep Research Rolling

SERC marine biologist Brianna Tracy holds a plate with marine life pulled from a dock in San Francisco. (Photo: Kristen Minogue/SERC)

Become a citizen scientist without leaving home 

Under Governor Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home orders, Marylanders may find themselves with some extra time on their hands. That time can be beneficial to the scientific community, say researchers with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater. 

Using a program called Invader ID, the first all-online citizen science project at SERC, we can all explore some of the more unusual lifeforms that live underwater. Researchers are asking for help in identifying marine invertebrates by examining online photos of sampling tiles. The identifications will help scientists track changes in coastal environments. 

Marine biologists have deployed underwater tiles all around the continent and want our help identifying what creatures have grown on them. Specifically, researchers are looking at fouling communities–groups of organisms that live under docks and ship hulls and are made up of invertebrate animals, algae and microbes. Because these communities live in shallow, coastal areas, they are strongly influenced by local environmental conditions, like changes in temperature and salinity. 

“Invader ID began two years ago, as a way to have citizen scientists help us analyze thousands of underwater panels that our biologists were stretched too thin to analyze on their own,” says Kristen Minogue, science writer for SERC. 

“The biologists in our Marine Invasions Lab have been doing surveys for years of marine organisms, but over time we accumulated more tiles than our scientists could analyze, so Katy Newcomer and fellow technician Brianna Tracy thought it would be a great idea to recruit citizen scientists to help with the analysis.” 

The citizen science online effort seems tailor-made for this social distancing. SERC hopes to collect 18,000 new identifications from tiles set in Alaska and Panama. 

“These panels are a part of research projects aimed at monitoring for invasive species,” says Katy Newcomer, a SERC biological technician. “The Alaska panels are from Sitka and Ketchikan. The Panama panels are from Panama City and are a part of a collaborative project we help run called PanAmEx, or the Pan-American Experiment. Labs from South and North America help us deploy and photograph panels in each locale, creating a latitudinal study of the fouling community.” 

A plate pulled from a survey in California, with two nonnative tunicates (Botryllus schlosseri and Botrylloides violaceus) and a bryozoan. (Photo: Brianna Tracy) 

Newcomer reports that they recently finished their original San Francisco panels and are working on analyzing the data from that site. “We originally planned to upload more sites when the analysis was complete, but once we noticed that volunteers and students wanted activities during this time, we decided to upload some sites early,” says Newcomer. “We’re thrilled at the quick response: over 2000 identifications since we relaunched. We hope any new volunteers will get a chance to learn more about diversity in the ocean and invasive species.” 

SERC says anyone from middle schoolers to adults can try their hand at looking for striped anemones and branching bryozoans in the photos. The site contains up to 50 photos of each panel. Every photo contains a black circle at a different spot, letting the citizen scientists know which organism on the panel they’re supposed to identify.  

No experience is necessary—the Invader ID program even has tutorials to guide you. Staying at home doesn’t mean that scientific research has to stop – not with plenty of citizen scientists ready to take up the cause. Learn more: