Researchers go public with quest to identify plankton species
NEWPORT, Ore. - Researchers using an innovative underwater imaging system have taken millions of photos of plankton ranging from tiny zooplankton to small jellyfish - and now they are seeking help from the public to identify the species.
The "Plankton Portal" project is a partnership between the University of Miami, Oregon State University and Zooniverse.org to engage volunteers in an online citizen science effort.
"One of the goals of the project is discovery," said Robert Cowen, new director of OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., who led the project to capture the images while at Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. "Computers can take pictures and even analyze images, but it takes humans to identify relationships to other organisms and recognize their behavior.
"Computers don't really care about context - whether something is up or down in the water column and what else might be in the neighborhood," he added. "People can do that. And we hope to have thousands of them look at the images."
Interested persons may sign up for the project at www.planktonportal.org.
Zooniverse.org is a popular citizen science website that engages millions of participants to study everything from far-away stars, to whale sounds, to cancer cells - and aid scientists with their observations. It works by training volunteers and validating their credibility by how often their observations are accurate.
"It is an increasingly popular pursuit for people interested in science and nature - from high school students to senior citizens," said Jessica Luo, a University of Miami doctoral student working with Cowen.
"Each image is looked at by multiple users and identification is done by a weighting system," said Luo, who is now working at OSU's Hatfield center. "The system not only looks for consensus, but rapidity of conclusion. It works amazingly well and the data from this project will help us better begin to explore the thousands of species in the planktonic world."
With funding from the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Geosciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cowen developed the "In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System," or ISIIS, while at Miami - along with Cedric Guigand of UM and Charles Cousin of Bellamare, LLC.
ISIIS combines shadowgraph imaging with a high-resolution line-scan camera to record plankton at 17 images per second. Cowen and his colleagues have used the system to study larval fish, crustaceans and jellyfish in diverse marine systems, including the Gulf of Mexico, the mid-Atlantic Ocean, the California coast, and the Mediterranean Sea.
At the same time ISIIS is capturing images, he says, other instruments are recording oceanographic conditions, including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and other measurements. These data, coupled with the images, are available to the public via Zooniverse.org.
"In three days, we can collect data that would take us more than three years to analyze," Cowen said, "which is why we need the help of the public. With the volume ISIIS generates, it is impossible for a handful of scientists to classify every image by hand, which is why we are exploring different options for image analysis - from automatic image recognition software to crowd-sourcing to citizen scientists."
Luo said the researchers hope to secure future funding to study plankton - which includes a variety of crustaceans and jellyfish in the water column - off the Pacific Northwest coast.
"Most images of plankton are taken in a laboratory, or collected from nets on a ship," said Cowen, who is a professor in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. "ISIIS gives us the rare ability to see them in their natural environment, which is a unique perspective that will enable us to learn more about them and the critical role they play in the marine food web."
Other researchers on the project include graduate student Adam Greer, and undergraduate students Dorothy Tang, Ben Grassian and Jenna Binstein - all at the University of Miami.